Saturday, September 17, 2016

90's Techno Watch: The Net (1995)



I remember seeing the commercials for the 1995 thriller, The Net, rolling my eyes, and making a firm decision that I would not see this movie.  Over the years, it's surprised me how many people have seen it, declared it terrible, and then expressed surprise that I hadn't seen it and never wanted to see it.

The kids will never understand what it was like in 1995, but we were on the teetering edge of a revolution in computing entering the lives of everyone on the planet.  Up to that point, computers had been, in the eyes of the public, a weird mix of science-fiction, radio-kit-bashers-gone-mad, a point of ridicule if people spend too much time with them outside of work, and seen as the key to god-like power as evidenced in everything from Weird Science to War Games to Ferris Bueller.  And, my God, such an overwhelmingly male-oriented hobby or interest.

My first introduction to what we'd wind up calling "the internet" was via the hand-waving plot explanations of War Games, but in real like, I only ever knew one kid, our own Groboclown, who had a modem in his house.  Aside from that, they were kind of a mystery.  By middle-school, I was aware of the "cyberpunk" literary movement, but mostly picked up the terms and ideas of "netrunners" second hand from my brother, who actually read the stuff.  But even at that - I got my head around the potential for use, for abuse, for second lives online (that would overtake meatspace).

When I got my first computer (a refurbished Pack-Bell 486 with Windows 3.1.  Like a @#$%ing BOSS, y'all!) and headed off to college, that was kind of an act of faith on the part of my parents.  They saw it as an over-powered Smith-Corona word processor, which was all we'd had in the house since I was 14 (the early Vic 20 and Apple IIe experiments had not made us computer whizzes).  And there was an assumption I'd do things with it, but no one could say what those things would be.

Fortunately at UT, I managed to move in down the hall from some guys who were already deeply computer savvy and who had actual modems and whatnot.  And, they weren't the kind of guys who sat in the dark and played Doom and didn't converse.  Instead, we were soon running wires down the hallway for networked play, and by Spring semester, with a used and battered 2400 baud modem installed in my computer and an account from UT, I was online.  Not that there was much to do online in 1994, but I was there!

But 1995's film, The Net, was less reflective of the techo-utopianism a lot of us were buying into thanks to pop publications like Wired.  The marketing and concept spoke a whole lot more to our parents' newspaper-headline driven concern over "this crazy, out of control technology", a future-shock echo that was rippling through the world that was just beginning to understand what it meant to suddenly start seeing monitors on every desk at every job and what was happening as we were having to give all those people our names, phone numbers, etc...

Those weren't just stand-alone ugly data-systems anymore, they were now on the Information Superhighway!*



My point is - the context of 1995 when The Net made it to cinemas everywhere with America's newest darling of the Star System-era of Hollywood, Sandra Bullock, was one of an already buzzing fear or discomfort.  Everything about the trailer reeked of the paranoia I could feel from my professors, from the general public and folks who were doing just fine in life without needing an email address, let alone a magic phone in their pocket that was a portal to all of human knowledge and able to access monumental computer systems to provide predictions and prescriptive behavior.*

Anyway, if The Net (1995) has one fatal flaw, it is not the absolutely terrible depiction of computing and the internet that boils away any goodwill the pretty-well researched first act sets up.  It is not a bad performance by Sandra Bullock, who is really very good in what limited amount of action she's given to take as a witness to her own life falling apart around her and a clunker of a script.

The movie is incredibly boring.


In some ways, the movie was really well conceived in many parts.  The ordering of a pizza online, booking your own travel arrangements - that was science fiction for the most part, but it was coming.  Shouting your order to a pizza-shop employee in a loud restaurant and getting an order that was wrong but which made sense if you figured out the error phonetically was just part of modern life before Dominos.com.  The only people with computerized access to booking airfare were travel agents, and that's why you paid them.**

But because John and Jane Q. Public likely didn't even own a personal computer, the movie moves slowly, explaining to the that there are computers, and in computers there are viruses.  And in the viruses, there are bad things that happen to computers.  Also - there is an internet, and people talk to each other on the internet - people who might be otherwise isolated.  Also, you can order a pizza.

I mean, this is how we got people used to an OS change in that same, magical year.



Unfortunately, just getting the plot going takes literally 45 minutes of what winds up being an almost two hour movie.

Sandra Bullock is maybe oddly cast as a loner who is vulnerable to someone coming along and swiping her life (I mean, she's Sandra Bullock.  She's pretty peppy.), but she does well enough and has enough back-story to make you buy that - okay, this gorgeous, peppy woman is at least anti-social-ish and maybe a workaholic.

Unfortunately, the scheme the bad-guys are running never really makes a lot of sense.  They're a super-high-end cyber-security company used by, like, power grids and the Pentagon, but their plan seems to be to get installed and then fail at cyber security with a terribly obvious pointer along the way to tell people "oh, if you see that icon, that means this is evil software".

It's also evil software that, when clicked to launch, will show you incriminating files without even having to go to the file folders or structure.  It just shows you PDFs you did not ask for with upsetting data.

Because Sandra Bullock sees one of these and is a pretty good Systems Analyst (the best in the biz, we're told), she could probably piece it together, which means the bad guys pull a wildly complicated ruse which could have been more easily settled by drowning her in a pool in Mexico - but that would be a short movie.

Instead, we're treated to the bad guys just really, really annoying her by erasing her identity out from under her - something not helped by her anti-social/ hermit-ish tendencies.

I expected the technical set-up in the first half to be much worse than it was, but it makes up for working okay in the beginning by making no sense whatsoever by the third act.  By then, they actually ignore how convention centers manage conferences and show floors (where is your BADGE, SANDY?)

Also, Dennis Miller is in this movie, showing America why Dennis Miller was not supposed to be in movies.

I did not like it, Sam I Am.  It was two hours of my life I've lost so I could get more internet jokes, I guess.  But I'm not sure it was worth it.  It was, in it's way, better than Hackers, which was sort of like a Mountain Dew ad trying to capture a fragment of the zeitgeist and totally missing it.  At least The Net felt like it took place in a reality roughly reflecting our own.

But I do not get why people think firesystems in the 1990's were tied to web-pages, exactly.

The DVD I watched was from 2006-ish as a direct-to-video sequel was underway.  So if you like to watch movies with people talking at computer screens and no concept of what it looks like when you experience data loss, this is the movie for you!




*In 1998 I went on a family vacation for Spring Break just before I finished college.  In a conversation for which I still have not forgiven anyone in my family, I was explaining that I was working in a "multimedia office" that made web-pages and content for the internet for UT's College of Engineering.  They informed me that I was wrong, that I couldn't possibly be working on "the real internet".  And when I assured them, no, it's mostly all the same internet, I was informed by all of them - nope, I was mistaken.

I tried to figure out what, exactly, they thought we were doing, because it was beginning to sound like my family all thought we were being paid to make fake websites, like make-work or something, but they couldn't quite articulate their incredulity that just anyone could make a website and put it online.

I walked out of the room and just went to bed and figured I'd let history sort it out.

At the time it was very, very hard to explain that this wasn't like television, which had huge walls and very specific gate-keepers.  My family sort of assumed what we were doing was like public access television, but even at that - it didn't mean Public Access wasn't on the cable dial.  I'm not sure any of them remember this conversation, but now seems like a good time to bring it up again, nearly 20 years later.

**Circa 1997 I worked with a young woman who was paying good money to go to travel agent school, and everyone else at the Camelot Records would speak in hushed tones about how her industry was sure to disappear in three years thanks to the recently arrived airline websites.

4 comments:

RHPT said...

What compelled you to watch this movie? Was it on cable or something?

RHPT said...

Oh, and you didn't mention the short-lived TV show based on the movie

Ryan Steans said...

A fair question. Partly because it's such an oddball cultural artifact of the dawn of the internet era and partly because it's become a bit of a meme for being... not good.

Jamie and I were at the video store and I knew I was about to rent something she wouldn't care about, and she waved it in my face as a joke, and I was like "oh, yeah, sure! Why not?" I mean, we just watched "Hackers" for the first time.

Ryan Steans said...

A... TV show? TO THE INTERNETS!!!!