Tinseltown Turns Up The Techno Terror

`Our whole world is sitting there on computer," cries Angela Bennett. "Your DMV records. Your Social Security. Your credit cards...there's this little electronic shadow on each of us...begging for somebody to screw with."

It is halfway through The Net, Columbia Pictures' formulaic techno-thriller, and Bennett is hyperventilating. The systems analyst, played by Sandra Bullock, is caught up in a scheme in which her identity has been deleted and replaced by someone else's. The premise is worthy of Hitchcock, though this movie lacks his skill and humor.

Still, as Hollywood's first major release to exploit the Internet's growing popularity, The Net marks a cultural coming-of-age for the technology. It is marred by only a few factual lapses, and its ominous message about the dark side of computing is by now so familiar that it's not enough to unnerve even the least Net-savvy.

Bennett is the type of gal who orders pizzas over the Internet and cozies up to a virtual fireplace on a computer screen in her apartment. Her troubles begin when a client sends a prototype program that gives Net users access to databases at the Federal Reserve, IRS, Atomic Energy Commission, and other highly sensitive sites. Remarkably, such powerful software is not controlled by Microsoft Corp.--though one of the film's heavies does turn out to be a billionaire software mogul.

Take it as cinematic license that the heavy-duty program resides on a single diskette. That said, most of The Net's PC references ring true enough. Some scenes were filmed in San Francisco earlier this year during the Macworld Expo trade show. And Dan Farmer, co-author of the SATAN security program, advised director-producer Irwin Winkler on real security risks.

Ultimately, The Net vastly exaggerates technology's dangerous side. The bad guys cause computers to go haywire at Los Angeles International Airport and the New York Stock Exchange. And Bennett, of course, must save the world from hackers run amok. She does this via the Internet, although the filmmakers can't resist abandoning the Information Superhighway for a genuine California car chase. So much for Netscapist fun.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.