In The Net, a tepid techno-thriller, Bullock is hacker Angela Bennett, a cyberspace cowgirl who can debug a computer program quicker than a rodeo guy can rope a steer. Despite Angela's skills - and Bullock's charms - director Irwin Winkler's film is so pedestrian that his movie has all the thrills of a school crossing.
Angela's problem is that she doesn't get out much. Rather than leave her cozy cottage on the Venice (California) canals, this ultra-shy computer consultant fixes herself a Gibson, orders pizza, and enjoys cyberchat on the Internet, where potential swains ask her what she wants in a dream man. ''Captain America meets Albert Schweitzer," Angela responds. "Spends all day dashing into the fray and by night plays Bach cantatas and makes the world safe for democracy." Dream on, girlfriend.
The nicest that can be said about The Net, which combines the political intrigue of The Pelican Brief with the high-tech tools of Disclosure, is that during the course of the movie Angela becomes her own dream man - fortunately without the superhero tights or the genius hair. Other than Bullock, this would-be suspenser is a crashing bore about crashing computer systems.
In her routine consultant work, Angela discovers a conspiracy that has triggered the suicide of the undersecretary of defense, and sabotaged the systems at LAX and Wall Street.
To get Angela off the case, the conspirators - via computer of course - erase her real identity and match her fingerprints and Social Security number with those of Ruth Marx, a known felon. Angela is lost in cyberspace. No one - not even Franz Kafka, who predicted the bureaucrat's appropriation of personal identity - can help this loner. Nor can her mother (Diane Baker), who has Alzheimer's. Nor can her estranged beau, a married shrink played with welcome humor by satirist Dennis Miller. But Angela has beautifully buffed and polished nails. Couldn't she call her manicurist to identify her?
The Net is the third feature directed by Winkler, the successful producer of Rocky and Raging Bull. Previously, Winkler directed Robert De Niro in Guilty by Suspicion and Night and the City, movies that, like The Net, are meditations upon ethics packaged as suspense films.
While he might be a mature producer, as a director Winkler is still young. He maintains too great - perhaps worshipful? - a distance from his characters. This dilutes the urgency of the ethical conflicts and the suspense. There are so many aerial shots in The Net that we started computing the cost of hiring a helicopter for 10 days.
THE NET * *
Produced by Irwin Winkler and Rob Cowan, directed by Irwin Winkler, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris, photography by Jack N. Green, music by Mark Isham, distributed by Columbia Pictures.
Running time: 1:58
Angela Bennett - Sandra Bullock
Dr. Champion - Dennis Miller
Jack Devlin - Jeremy Northam
Mrs. Bennett - Diane Baker
Bergstrom - Ken Howard
Parent's guide: PG-13 (implied sex, profanity, violence)
Showing at: area theaters