THE NET (1995) ** 1/4
Sandra is the hottest ticket today. In TV appearances even more than in her films, she comes through not merely as cute, but as charming, natural, intelligent, articulate and unpretentious.
No, I am not succumbing to actor-worship. Most performers are lower on my cinematic totem-pole than directors, screenwriters, production designers, cinematographers and technicians. But Miss Bullock is irresistible.
Her new fame is all the more remarkable as her films to date are not superior. Yet ever since that pleasant nonsense, "Love Potion No. 9," Sandra Bullock has been one of the most likeable newer actresses of the 90s.
"The Net" too is a movie where the package (Bullock) is better than the contents. Its basic format is that of a person who stumbles onto a secret which villains must recover and which jeopardizes her life. Before the fall of the Soviet Empire, international spying, intrigue and the KGB were a mainstay of such stories. Now cyber-space is one of the principal replacements.
Angela is a whiz of a computer consultant. She works at home. She has no life other than what she does with her machines. The secret is a diskette she gets from a cyber-friend. He dies in an inexplicable accident as Angela goes, alone, on her first vacation in years. After visiting her Alzheimer's-afflicted mother (who does not recognize her) Angela flies to Cozumel, Mexico.
There, Englishman Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam), suave and well-informed about Angela (from breaking into her thoughts on the Internet), romances her to get the disk, then tries to kill her but fails. She escapes, only to find out that Devlin's powerful techno-bandit employers have gone into computers and made her a non-person. To quote a Hitchcock title, The Lady Vanishes and is officially replaced with the identity --and the criminal past- of a "Ruth Marx."
Vainly trying to convince the authorities and others that she is indeed Angela Bennett, and almost bereft of help, she is chased by Devlin and acolytes. The film's most artificial impossibility -- on the shaky grounds that loner Angela works in her apartment and doesn't get around much -- is that she cannot find one soul to identify her.
"The Net" begins well, with the mysterious suicide of a Washington honcho that recalls the Vincent Foster enigma, and with Angela at the keyboard, exceptionally skilled but, like some real people, isolated from life and existing vicariously via computers.
The film keeps adding references to today's headlines and preoccupations: the fascination with computers and the fear of their misuse; the hackers who can learn much about you and penetrate your privacy; Alzheimer's disease; conspiracy theories and manipulations of the news, the economy; AIDS. It's all topical, and typical of the waning century.
Soon however matters becomes too far-fetched. Never mind the by now common in movies mind-boggling ease and speed of computer feats that can leave experts incredulous and make ordinary users feel like fools. What burdens the plot is its cramming with Hitchcockian themes, situations and tricks, without Hitchcock's humor and talent: The Wrong Woman; the ambiguous new lover a la "Rebecca," "To Catch a Thief," " Suspicion", etc.; The Woman Who Knew Too Much; the protagonist who protests a false identity, like Cary Grant on "North by Northwest" but without that film's twists.
Adding to that mix the non- Hitchcock movie "The Fugitive," "The Net" becomes The Film That Tried Too Much. The makers might have studied Hitchcock more closely and learned that his turns were unpredictable, his structures were "clean," and his relatively simple plots allowed the exploration of time, space, place and characters. Except for Bullock's part, here all the roles are strictly formulaic, sketchy and one-dimensional.
Not that the movie is without several moments of suspense. Even implausible-on-reflection scenes often work when the tempo goes clickety-clack. But in many other sections disbelief can range from partial to total. I could cite examples, but giving away more than than the minimum of thriller's plot is a no-no.
Bullock is the film's near-total focus and its major asset. Her Angela, appealing, gutsy and resourceful, gets maximum mileage from ho-hum events. Note how decisive her movements and gestures are, whether she is punching keys, closing car doors or sneaking into a work-station. It's a pity that past the early segments Bullock does not get a chance to show her best weapon, a disarming smile.