The Net (1995)

There was a stunning late-2018 phenomena in the week between Christmas and New Year’s where everyone in my immediate social & professional circles who normally don’t care at all about movies suddenly cared a lot about one movie in particular: Bird Box. The absurd, instantaneous ubiquity of Bird Box‘s online premise caused on uproar of memes, then memes about those memes, then conspiracy theories about where the memes came from in the first place. Whether Bird Box‘s cultural moment was manufactured by the Netflix advertising machine or it was a genuine response to a widely available genre film with a flashy premise, its sudden online omnipresence was a great reminder to watch another Sandra Bullock vehicle that had been sitting unwatched on my shelf for months: the 1995 cyberthriller The Net. I don’t know that there ever was a time when The Net dominated online culture in proto-meme ridicule the way Bird Box hijacked everyone’s brain for 72 hours, but wild internet conspiracy theories about Bird Box‘s marketing had a distinct Net-ish flavor to it anyway. To put it in 1995 terms, Bird Box Week was a terrifying time when America got hacked by an elite group of cyberterrorists – Netflix’s marketing department.

The most convincing argument that Bird Box‘s instantaneous online success was a natural occurrence instead of an algorithm “hack” job is that Sandra Bullock is just that much of a draw. Curiously enough, that exact argument is what makes the basic premise of The Net so ludicrously unconvincing. Sometime in the 1990s audiences (and well-compensated PR teams) unanimously crowned Julia Roberts as America’s Sweetheart, only for that position to quickly trickle down to Sandra Bullock sometime around the release of Miss Congeniality (and, arguably, later to Reese Witherspoon). As one of America’s Official Sweethearts, Bullock is often cast as an everyday Plain Jane in roles she is far too beautiful & vibrantly charismatic to pull off. I’ve never seen a more preposterous version of that dissonance than in The Net, where Bullock plays a friendless loner slob computer hacker, vulnerable to attack because she’s alone in the world. Watching Bullock slovenly eat junk food & code in her “cyberchat” computer dungeon really pushes her Sweetheart Next Door onscreen persona into surreally unbelievable territory. That inability to lose herself in a role comes hand in hand with movie star celebrity, though – a suspension of disbelief audiences are willing to accommodate because we love seeing these megastars perform, Everyday Sweethearts or no.

Besides Bullock’s natural star power & effortless charm, The Net‘s main draw for modern audiences is its glimpse at 1990s era fears & misunderstandings of online culture. I feel like I already blather until I’m hoarse about how user-interface cyberthrillers like Unfriended, Cam, Nerve, and #horror are documenting online culture & tech textures in a way more “respectable” cinema wouldn’t dare; The Net is only further proof how invaluable that will be after just a few years’ time. The film’s main conflict involves an encrypted floppy disc that elite hackers are willing to murder Bullock’s online slob to obtain, exploring then-contemporary audiences’ fears of the vulnerability of digitally stored information. Characters anxiously explain the vulnerability of our “electronic shadow” in a world where “our entire lives are in the computer,” waiting to be hacked. The film’s tagline bellows, “Her driver’s license. Her bank account. Her credit card. Her identity. DELETED.” Most of The Net‘s basic thriller elements derive from Bullock’s helplessness in the face of this online identity persecution limiting her mobility & capital as she protects the MacGuffinous floppy disc. Just as important as those loud, overwhelming shouts of digitized culture fearmongering, though, are the documentation of more grounded, everyday online activities as Bullock frantically types away on her ancient PC.

Of course, all of this alarmist documentatarian focus on mid-90s internet culture often opens up the film to being outright silly, charmingly so. Primitive AOL-era emojis, in-dialogue explanations of terms like “IRL” (all-caps), and exchanges like “You’re hacker too?,” “Isn’t everybody?,” color The Net as a so-bad-it’s-good early Internet relic. A lot of that ridicule is overexaggerated, such as a much-mocked scene where Bullock orders food delivery from the fictitious Pizza.Net that more or less predicted the Domino’s online delivery app a decade in advance, as if this were prescient sci-fi instead of a ludicrously dated thriller. Where The Net truly gets good for me is in its lack of confidence that its chosen subject is sufficiently cinematic. Unsure audiences will bother reading online chatroom text to themselves, Bullock’s computer “helpfully” reads out the chatter in exaggerated robotic voice synthesizers. Discontented with merely displaying online data in matter-of-fact presentation, harsh music video edits & slashing sound cues are deployed to make computer readouts more “dynamic” (read: obnoxious). To add some explosive energy to the onscreen thrills, the film’s evil hacker syndicate graduate from hijacking online personal data to hijacking personal airplanes – essentially hacking victims to death in fiery crashes. It’s all deeply, incurably silly, a tone that only improves with time as its moment in tech becomes more obsolete.

Without its Evil Internet gimmick and the America’s Sweetheart charisma of Sandra Bullock, The Net would have a dime-a-dozen quality in 90s thriller terms. I assume the same could be said of Bird Box‘s respective gimmick, sight unseen (pun intended). There’s much worse a thriller could do to grab your attention than exploit a preposterous high-concept scenario & employ a surefire box office star, though. For instance, it could flood the internet with fake accounts & preloaded memes or hack your VOD platform to set its front-page autoplay on loop to inflate its own viewing numbers, boosting its profile. If The Net had taught me anything, it’s that nothing is unhackable and nothing online is to be trusted, not even Pizza.Net.

-Brandon Ledet

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Like Me (2018)

A neon-lit technophobic thriller profiling a teenage hedonist who posts videos of her increasingly violent, entirely preposterous crime spree on social media for likes, Like Me portends to be about the violence & voyeurism of modern online culture. Its title & basic premise promise the exact kind of genre-film fearmongering about the Evils of the Internet that I love so much in titles like Cam, Nerve, Unfriended, and #horror. That genre’s influence certainly runs throughout Robert Mockler’s microbudget debut as a constant, background hum, but the film overall is more of a character study of an ambitionless slacker who fills her days with drugs & violent pranks as a destructive form of self-amusement. The moral pitfalls & visual hallmarks of online culture are mostly an aesthetic choice used to flavor the post-Gen X road trip drama our reckless slacker protagonist stumbles through aimlessly. Given her grotesque impulses to indulge in large quantities of brightly colored junk food – both as sustenance and as bodily decoration – the film is just as much about sploshing as it is about the Internet. The command “Like me” from the title, then, is a clever indication of the midpoint where the film teeters between genres: stuck between an Internet Age crime spree thriller and a character study of a timeless teenage-loner archetype who just desperately needs attention & adoration.

The first 20min of Like Me is the exact social media-obsessed cyberthriller its surface-details promise. The film opens with our adoration-craving anti-hero filming her robbery of a late-night convenience store as if it were a 1st person shooter video game. Everything from her pixelated mask, her victim’s discomfort, and her audiences’ flippant online response to the misery being documented for their entertainment is a perfect encapsulation of the fearmongering cyberthriller that’s promised on the tin. Her subsequent stunts stray further from that theme as she often forgets to even film her crimes, which range form staging an elaborate dine & dash with a homeless man to kidnapping & shooting a pervy motel owner with a handgun. It’s in her relationship with that kidnapped perv (Larry Fessenden, looking like a mix between Jack Torrance & the Too Many Cooks creep) that Like Me begins to show its true, hideous colors. Its online-voyeurism critiques fade to the background as this unlikely, doomed pair become increasingly friendly on a go-nowhere road trip. As they hop novelty motels, share cheap drugs & morbid stories, and loosen the constraints of their captive-captor dynamic, the film becomes more about a single interpersonal connection made irl instead of thousands being made online – as irrevocably fucked up as the relationship might be.

As much as I’ve been focusing on Like Me’s various themes & character relationships here, those are admittedly the film’s most glaring weaknesses. Online commenters reducing human misery to the same entertainment value applied to movie trailer reaction videos & Funko Pops unboxings on YouTube is too thin of a critique to carry the movie on its own – both due to over-familiarity & to the broadness of its caricatures of an online audience. The closest Like Me gets to making a unique, interesting point about the evils of online culture is in casting a young female lead in a world where she’s surrounded almost exclusively by misogynist MRA types who make her feel small no matter how large her social media following becomes. It fares slightly better on that front once it becomes a kidnapping road trip drug movie, but for the most part the themes are razor thin and the quality of its actors’ performances is wildly uneven. It’s just easier to dwell on those narrative weaknesses in discussion of the film than it is to convey what makes it worth a watch: its visual experimentation. Like Me’s hyperactive editing style, neon-soaked production design, and glitchy .gif-influenced cyber-psychedelia transform what should be an entirely dismissible microbudget thriller that’s kind of about the dangers of the Internet into something genuinely worth a look. It didn’t deliver the Internet Age fearmongering I was hoping for, it stumbles a little in its search for having something to say, and the acting talent on hand is spotty, but the imagery it assaults the audience with is undeniably something – especially in its drugged-out, up-close depictions of day-glo sploshing.

-Brandon Ledet