It’s been 25 years since Sandra Bullock found herself the victim of dial-up identity theft in 1995’s The Net, one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts at a “cyber-thriller.” While you might expect the film’s depiction of technology to appear dated, some of it was eerily prescient: Bullock’s character, Angela Bennett, books airline tickets and orders pizza online; in a chat room, her virtual friends have avatars. (She also inexplicably infects both Macs and PCs with the same virus. No one’s perfect.)
"The computer has so much screen time that we saw it as a character,” says Todd A. Marks, a longtime video consultant and the movie's display graphics supervisor. “We often had just two or three seconds in a cutaway to point the audience toward what we wanted them to see." We asked Marks to walk us through some of the pivotal tech points in the film.
1. The Layout
Bullock plays a systems analyst who works from a home office cluttered with books, hardware, and peripherals. The production populated the room with both Macintosh and PC equipment, though Marks estimates 90 percent of the devices seen in the movie are from Apple. “Our preference was to use Mac stuff," he says. "It would do what we wanted when we wanted. For certain ‘hacking’ stuff, she’d swing over and use her PC."
Even though the film was produced by Sony, few of their products are visible. “They had so much theft of Sony stuff on other productions that they wouldn’t give us anything.”
2. Acting While Typing
“Some actors can’t really act and type at the same time," Marks says. “Sandra could.” Normally, Marks and his team would be on the opposite side of a wall with access to her monitors so they could hit the right keystrokes or move the mouse cursor in case she missed a step. (The custom software would respond to "live" commands.) “Back then you could pull up a window, so we’d chat with her in between takes. It was a little like an early form of texting.”
3. Online Pizza Ordering
Angela is a loner, which prompted Marks and other members of the consulting crew to think up ways for her to interact with the outside world. Her online pizza order—including options for size and toppings—foreshadows the launch of e-delivery services from chains like Pizza Hut and Domino's years later. “At the time, a pizza place in San Francisco was taking orders via email, but it wasn’t interactive. It’s always fun to see something you predicted actually taking place.”
4. Airline Travel
In order to book her vacation, Angela heads for an online travel booking agency and even selects her seating assignment. Marks recalls that some people may have been able to confirm reservations online at the time, but nothing else. “You could maybe email a travel agent. It’s hard to know exactly where these ideas came from, but we read a lot of tech magazines to see where things were heading.”
5. Audible Chat Rooms
Forever alone, Angela spends time chatting with online buddies who sport tiny avatars that weren’t too common at the time. Despite the fact that she isn't blind, she runs a text-to-speech program that croaks out audio of what other users are typing, a way for the audience to get an audio cue. “It can’t always be just the audience staring at the screen. She’s also repeating some of what she’s typing. That way, you don’t have to read the entire thing.”
6. Wolfenstein 3D
Angela’s productivity killer of choice is the popular first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D, though it's not called by name and was slightly altered since she was supposed to be beta-testing it. “It was a pre-built sequence made for us that would open and close at the right time.” Why Wolfenstein? “It was what we could get the rights to,” says Marks.
Much of the infecting and deactivating of viruses in The Net is facilitated with three-and-a-half-inch floppy disks, even though CD-ROMs were in use at the time. “There’s a CD-ROM drive in her tower computer, but back then you had to open a tray to put one in and they weren’t rewritable. It didn’t really work for the story.”
8. Broadband without Broadband
Graphics are very quick to load in The Net, which may have misled new PC owners who had to wait 45 minutes for a picture to appear onscreen. “You have to be a little bit ahead of what’s possible," says Marks. "You can’t have someone sit for 10 seconds while something loads. Sometimes the pages would appear in pieces, which was our way of showing information was still in ‘chunks’ and not instant.”
9. Extreme Hacking Skills
When Angela wants to find one of her chat buddies, she uses a WHOIS program in “UN X,” which provides their real name and IP address in milliseconds. “I can program something where she has to open a program, click this, type that, open this, bounces around, types that, and then onscreen it’s just her face and a cut to the program already open. You can spend all night doing that but editing will take it out.”
10. Static IP Address
As computer-savvy viewers have pointed out to Marks ever since the film’s release, the IP addresses displayed are too long. “People were like, ‘Oh, there are too many numbers.’ Well, yeah! It’s like a phone number. You can’t use a real one. Actually, the phone number used for the pizza order was. It was the producer’s.”
11. The Incredible Melting Virus
Real viruses are usually covert, burrowing into systems and doing damage before they’re detected. Clearly, that’s not very cinematic. When a computer gets a bug in The Net, the screen usually begins to pixelate. “Obviously, it’s not how viruses work, and it was one of my least favorite things, but you have to convey it to the audience. It’s [meant to be] a virus eating through the layers of information.”
Released the same year as Hackers, The Net made a respectable $51 million in theaters; Marks has continued working as a video playback supervisor, including duties on Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle's 2015 biopic of Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender.
“I’m certainly proud of the work we did on The Net,” he says. “One of the things we’d tell people is that it’s a movie, not a documentary. It’s always a fine line between accurate and visually interesting. I have people who would email and go, ‘Oh, that’s stupid.’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, I know.’ But you have to do it in order to get through the story.”
This story has been updated for 2020.