CCNMA: Casting a wide you-know-what — The Net

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Are your weekend entertainment plans certified? CCNMA is a weekly feature that explores the movie industry’s love-hate relationship with computing technology. This week’s movie is  ONE FROM THE VAULT .

It’s a fairly obscure historical tidbit, particularly in the age of Miley Cyrus confounding a nation by twerking semi-naked at the Video Music Awards, that once upon a time producers and directors couldn’t show a woman’s navel in movies or on television. Of all the things to stand out about The Net nearly 20 years after its theatrical release, that’s the one that probably would annoy I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden the most.

Over the entire run of Jeannie, Eden’s umbilicus winked at TV viewers a bare handful of times, despite her character’s wearing harem pants and halter tops more or less continuously through nearly 140 episodes. In The Net, star Sandra Bullock’s belly button almost has a bigger presence than comedian and failed Monday Night Football commentator Dennis Miller, who gets third-lead billing for a rare character role as a friendly therapist.

Bullock’s Angela Bennett is actually more than a little bit like a genie (if not a Jeannie) in a bottle. She lives alone near the beach in a house that she rarely leaves, but can be summoned by a rub of the lamp, typically in the form of a phone call or e-mail. Completing the picture, we first see her through a skylight in the roof of her home, with the camera gliding down from its overhead perspective to eventually pop into her magical hideaway through the ceiling.

Angie’s day job is to expunge computer viruses, which we see her do with such casualness that she might as well be clapping her hands, sprinkling pixie dust, or chanting a spell. She’s a little like a pediatrician, too, in that everyone in the movie seems to regard the word “virus” literally — Dr. Bennett, my little program has that bug that’s been going around. Can you fix it? Her clients are software developers and game programmers, the kind of people who, even in 1995, would have been severely unlikely to fall victim to your average hacker.

Angie’s only actual relationships are with her mom, who has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember her, and Miller’s character, her scruffy ex. Everyone else knows her strictly voice-to-voice or pixel-to-pixel. Her social circle is three dudes in a chat room — Iceman, Gandalf361 and Cyberbob — and even the nosy neighbor lady has never gotten a clear look at Angela’s face.

This extreme isolation means that poor Ang is more or less a sitting duck after a potent nugget of hack magic is passed along by a colleague. As is often the case in thrillers, powerful people want their world-domination-ensuring gizmo back and, well, this is where everything sorta stops making sense. Angie takes a vacation to Mexico with a particular floppy disk — 1.44 MB, in case you’re wondering how much data storage capacity it takes to write the doom of mankind — and the Bad Guys send a Smooth Operator to get it back.

Jack Devlin, a Euro-hunk with a private yacht, turns out to be a sucker for degree of difficulty. Jack B. Nimble jumps through all kinds of social engineering hoops to win Angie’s trust, when simply using his vast resources to, say, stop her at the airport, search her luggage and palm the floppy would have been far simpler. Come on, Jack. Just pretend to be the DEA, or something. (British actor Jeremy Northam, complete with amusing ’90s hair, would be put to much better use the following year as Mr. Knightley in the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Jane Austen’s Emma.)

His game falls apart — I did not see that one coming — so that the real fun can begin when Angie, after escaping from the yacht, sails about 50 yards before crashing, knocking herself silly and waking up in a Mexican hospital three days later. Instead of, oh, I don’t know, finding her there and rifling through her belongings, Devlin goes back to the States and takes complicated steps to erase Angela Bennett from the public record. He replaces her identity with that of Ruth Marx, a drifter whose felonious rap sheet includes petty larceny, prostitution and narcotics, and even installs an imposter, a shadow Angela Bennett, to mind the few key points at which anyone might come looking for the real thing.

The rest of the movie is a not-so-merry chase around Los Angeles with Angie finding herself hemmed in at every turn by the ubiquity of computers in modern life. Devlin controls all the data thanks to his bosses’ neato Everything Hack, essentially a backdoor in a snazzy new security program that apparently has been adopted by every net-connected anything in the world.

Hey, Angela! Does this story have a moral? “Just think about it, our whole world is sitting there on a computer. It’s in the computer, everything, your DMV records, your social security, your credit cards, your medical history — it’s all right there. Everyone is stored in there. There’s like this little electronic shadow on each and every one of us just begging to be screwed with.” Think about it, got it. And don’t click the link in that e-mail.

PROGRAMMING NOTES

ROME IF YOU WANT TO: The movie’s evil hackers call themselves Praetorians, which is moderately clever. The Praetorian Guard in ancient Rome protected both the emperor and the city of Rome itself, but the elite soldiers often used their privileged position to serve their own ends.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: The filmmakers use a familiar bit of blarney to burnish Angie’s hack cred. At one point, the bad guys attempt to trace her while she’s online, leading one of them to exclaim: “Whoever it is is covering their tracks big time, a dozen hops so far: A POP in Switzerland, a little Unix box at the University of Montana, five different routers at Berkeley — they know what they’re doing.” They usually do.

ROCK ME AMADEUS: When we first encounter it, the Everything Hack has somehow been piggybacked on a site for a band called Mozart’s Ghost. There’s no such a band in real life, but author Julia Cameron later claimed Mozart’s Ghost as the title of light romance in which the actual restless spirit of Mozart plays matchmaker for a crabby medium and her piano-playing neighbor. Sounds like a blockbuster romantic comedy to me: Is Sandra Bullock available?

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Chip Hartweir

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHIP HARTWEIR is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard with arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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