Information Highway becomes the mean streets in 'The Net'


Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The thing is, in "The Net," Angela Bennett isn't even paranoid. She's blissfully lost in her computer world, so even when everyone is out to get her, it takes her a while to get it.

Sandra Bullock stars as Angela, the software analyst at the heart of this gripping Internet paranoid fantasy, which shows just how wired our lives are -- and how easy it is to be unplugged.

Bullock ("Speed," "While You Were Sleeping") is likable as another girl-next-door type who happens to be a techno-whiz. Ensconced in her lonely home office, she finds glitches in programs, defuses viruses, orders pizza and talks to cyberfriends, all on computers. Her forays into the outside world consist of visiting her confused mother, who often can't even identify her daughter, and retrieving FedEx packages at her front door.

One of those packages, from Angela's colleague, Dale, sets the events of "The Net" into motion. It's a playful program called "Mozart's Ghost" that turns out to be the gateway into highly sensitive, secret computer systems -- medical records, government files, Wall Street, air-traffic control. (The movie's air-traffic control problems, combined with the problems that real systems have been experiencing recently, are enough to make anybody nervous.)

When Dale decides to discuss the disk with Angela, and his plane crashes on his way to visit her, she assumes it was merely an accident. So, without thinking twice, she goes on the vacation she's planned.

On an exquisite Mexican beach, she meets dream man Jack Devlin (British actor Jeremy Northam), a cross between James Bond and Bill Gates who happens to like everything she likes. By this time, the audience has been primed to wonder why she isn't more suspicious of Mr. Perfect. Eventually, she discovers that he wants more than her body.

And so the chase begins. Angela, apparently, knows too much, so the mysterious hacker coalition that's pursuing her begins to erase her -- her identity, her house, everything. The people around her are in similar danger: an on-line friend named CyberBob (you may think twice about hanging out in on-line chat rooms after this), her mother, and the only other person she knows "IRL" (in real life), her therapist and former lover, nicely played by Dennis Miller.

Although much of the sexy technical stuff is suspended in the middle of the movie while Angela is on the run, it's resurrected at the end when Angela must crack the system and figure out who's behind not just her persecution, but the Great Big Conspiracy. It's exciting and satisfying, even if the chief villain isn't terribly original and the chase scenes are overlong. Bullock is plucky and believable as an average person who must marshal her strength and smarts to get her life back.

Along the way, "The Net" hammers in a few points that are worth hearing. One, our entire lives are documented on computers. Two, almost any information stored in a computer is subject to tampering. And three, living by computer alone can be not only dull, but dangerous. (Well, maybe not this dangerous.)

The moral isn't too heavy, though, so it's worth booting up the movie: "The Net" delivers megabytes of thrills.

"The Net"

Directed by Irwin Winkler

Starring Sandra Bullock, Jeremy Northam and Dennis Miller

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated PG-13 (violence, implied sex)


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