Digital Phantoms

Digital Phantoms October 24, 2023

Feelings (1937) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Source: Wikimedia
License: Creative Commons

The Net (1995) is a Cassandra of a film, if Cassandra’s curse were to be right about the future but to be so thoroughly pat and anodyne that no one would care. Coming in at almost two hours, most of this Sandra Bullock-driven thriller watches like a script pumped out by an AI trained on half-shredded copies of a Tom Clancy novel stuck in a big, beige printer. There are a couple notable, all-too-notably-human exceptions. Thank God for those. The movie warrants talking about not because it’s engaging or exciting but because it forecasts a future true to life both in tone and content. As the joke goes, the writers on this season of hell are really jumping the shark.

Angela Bennett (Sandra Bullock) is a homebody computer hacker who spends all day trapping viruses (as one did in 1995) and all night complaining on message boards about her need for the perfect man. The pimply nerds with whom she shares her thoughts seem amazed enough that a woman would dwell among them. One day she takes a much-needed vacation to Mexico where she meets Jack Devlin (Jeremy Northam), a British predator—er, love interest—who tries to kill her and steal an important floppy disc she recently received from a friend. Upon escaping his clutches, Bennett wakes up in a hospital and finds that her identity has been stolen. She is now Ruth Marx, a woman with a rap sheet long enough to ride from Cabo to LA. Someone claiming to be her sold her house. Since she never goes out, her own landlady isn’t even sure what the real Angela Bennet looks like anyway. With the cops after her, Bennett seeks help from an old therapist and creep named Dr. Alan Champion (Dennis Miller). Hitchcockian fantasia waits around every corner. She is now the woman with the name of another, nothing more than lines of code rewritten to dupe the authorities into hunting her down.

Bennett runs and runs, passed from disguised mercenary to hospital bed over and over until she manages to take down the shadowy cabal behind the theft of the disc. Their dominance is so complete precisely because everything is computerized. “Angela Bennett” has no physical footprint, no reality for anyone but her senile mother and a kooky local psychologist. Her life is code; her existence is a phantom inside the cosmic machine. Every time she makes a phone call, they can find her. Every person she speaks to becomes another datum to put in her file. It’s not so much that she loses her identity as that she never had one to begin with—the Net giveth, the Net taketh away.

Watching the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about Whole Foods and how they keep trying to get me to pay with my palm print. I couldn’t shake this nagging dread deep in the pit of my stomach, the one I get every time I buy a new appliance and find out it has to be wi-fi connected to print or make toast. I too am increasingly little more than a file on the interconnected set of servers that now constitute “life.” You are too. Each day there are fewer and fewer physical signs of our reality: even our IDs and money fade and become ways to break us down into data, track us as we move about. I am this location now. I am that location then. I am a purchase of $4.96. I am the 10,000 steps in the hot sun, the reward my insurance company sends when the counter hits ten days. My phone receives the reward addressed to a “Chase” who is not there. I am Ruth Marx.

What’s more, the digital detritus turned ephemeral essence is, much like The Net, stultifying, boring. Sandra Bullock does a convincing job, but her role remains mostly screaming, big-eyed, and running. It’s hardly exciting; she runs to survive not because it’s thrilling. I too keep on to keep on keeping on.

Ironically, and as usual, the 90s version of the future, even if dystopian, is more titillating. The secret program Angela Bennett possesses opens with a brightly colored splash of flash art. Rock n’ roll Mozart plays, and the computer shakes with a montage of facts and figures, revealing all the world’s secrets right then and there. Talk about movie magic. In the real world, the program would launch to reveal pastel Corporate Memphis icons opening onto the barest silhouette of the solar temple.

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