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Now that Julia Roberts has blown it, Hollywood is positioning Sandra Bullock as its new golden girl. She’s paid her dues, progressing from low-budget youth comedies (Love Potion 9, When the Party’s Over), to more prestigious misfires (The Vanishing, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway) to leading roles in box-office smashes (Speed, While You Were Sleeping). With another feature already completed, one more set to shoot in the fall, and a project that she’ll produce and act in next spring, she’s shaping up as one of misogynistic Tinseltown’s rare ’90s female success stories.

Bullock’s appeal appears to lie in her unassailable ordinariness. Steering a middle course between the extremes of her contemporaries, she’s not strikingly beautiful (Michelle Pfeiffer) or scary looking (Glenn Close), intimidatingly talented (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or hilariously inept (Andie MacDowell), brazenly carnal (Sharon Stone) or perkily prim (Meg Ryan). Attractive, competent, and levelheaded, she’s the anodyne screen avatar of the conservative millennium.

A consensus performer undeserving of blame or praise, Bullock’s ascent seems unstoppable. But if her career can be derailed, writer/producer/director Irwin Winkler is just the man for the job. A distinguished producer responsible for two of the most brilliant films I’ve ever seen—John Boorman’s Point Blank and Leo the Last—along with a series of acclaimed projects including They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, The Right Stuff, Round Midnight, and Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Winkler made his belated directorial debut, Guilty by Suspicion, four years ago. One could hardly guess from that toothless, soporific Hollywood blacklist melodrama that Winkler had ever seen a movie before, much less produced a number of classics. His 1992 follow-up, Night and the City, a faux-Scorsese remake of Jules Dassin’s atmospheric 1950 film noir, wasn’t any better, sandbagging the volatile talents of Robert De Niro and Jessica Lange.

A topical techno-thriller, The Net is Winkler’s third, and worst, effort. With the assistance of four accomplices, he’s cobbled together a screenplay from fragments of more gripping suspense pictures. The central situation—a computer programmer whose life is imperiled after she stumbles upon an insidious cyber-conspiracy—rehashes 1986’s mindlessly diverting Whoopi Goldberg vehicle, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, supplemented by the larcenous appropriation of key sequences from Strangers on a Train, The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Visually ungainly—with an emphasis on the waxy close-ups and flaccid two-shots typical of made-for-TV movies—and jarringly edited, The Net could serve as a film-school example of how not to make a thriller.

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Bullock plays Angela Bennett, a Santa Monica free-lance computer analyst employed to beta-test games and virus protection programs by a San Francisco software firm. Several reels are devoted to establishing Angela as a sequestered, vulnerable protagonist. Single and romantically uninvolved, she’s been abandoned by her father and supports her ailing mother, an Alzheimer’s disease sufferer, in a posh nursing home. In a time and place where solitude has become practically inconceivable, she’s the invisible woman—no friends, no neighbors, and no business associates because she works at home—communicating with her employers via telephone and Internet. (Apparently, she was hired by computer since none of her supervisors has ever met her.) Even her anchovy pizzas are ordered by modem. Compu-geeking alone from dawn to dusk in jeans and baggy sweatshirts, she nevertheless sports feathery false eyelashes. This is, after all, a star vehicle.

Just as she’s about to depart for the Yucatan on her first vacation in six years, Angela’s colleague FedExes her an untested diskette labeled “Mozart’s Ghost,” which inexplicably grants her access to a variety of classified private and government databanks. Flying south to confer with her about this mysterious program, he crashes his self-piloted Cessna. Undeterred, Angela proceeds to Mexico where, hacking in a bikini on the beach, she meets Jack Devlin (a diabolical surname familiar to devotees of Hitchcock’s Notorious) who romances her to get his hands on “Mozart’s Ghost.” (British stage actor Jeremy Northam, who could pass for a hitherto-unacknowledged Baldwin brother, makes his American film debut as Devlin.) A self-confessed “relationship kind of girl,” Angela nevertheless has sex with him on their first date—Angel and Devil, nudge-nudge—only to discover his veiled agenda and narrowly escape with her life. Regaining consciousness in a Mexican hospital sans papers, our battered cyber-heroine returns home with a new passport and, for reasons too complicated and preposterous to explain, a new identity, Ruth Marx.

Back in Santa Monica, she discovers that her entire computer history, every record of her existence, has been expunged, and someone else is posing as Angela Bennett. Nobody can verify her identity (now we know why Mom has Alzheimer’s!) and her house has been emptied and put on the block for resale. As Ruth, whom police records list as a prostitute and narcotics addict, Angela goes underground. She enlists the aid of her pill-popping shrink ex-lover (comic Dennis Miller who, stripped of his familiar smartass persona, barely registers on-screen) but, for reasons I dare not reveal in order to avoid a stack of hate mail from angry readers, he’s not very helpful. Struggling to save her skin (while still taking time to blow-dry her hair) and expose the computer conspiracy that has now invaded Wall Street and threatens national security, she ventures to San Francisco where, after infiltrating corporate headquarters and a computer convention, her quest ends, like all contemporary movies, reassuringly.

A quintessential no-brainer, The Net is an MTV-paced thriller, concerned only with moving as quickly as possible and springing intermittent surprises, that have no resonance since, at every turn, the film’s elaborate story line is numbingly implausible. (Now I know how many plot holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.) From the pre-credits teaser—the Hains Point suicide of a Defense Department official that obscenely exploits Vincent Foster’s suicide—to the Moscone Convention Center catwalk climax, Winkler treats his audience with the contempt reserved for O.J. Simpson jurors. His narrative blunders along from incident to incident, never achieving what any effective suspense film requires—the sense of a noose tightening around the protagonist’s neck, of time running out. He lacks even the minimal competence to copy the sequences he’s pilfered—Strangers on a Train‘s merry-go-round showdown, The Parallax View‘s convention climax. When Angela brains a pursuer, we have to take on faith that the red implement she bashes him with is a fire extinguisher, since Winkler never bothers to show us exactly what she’s brandishing.

Though no doubt thrilled to have attained name-above-the-title solo billing on a major picture, Bullock, who appears in nearly every shot, seems bemused by the asininity of what she’s forced to do. A sensible, down-to-earth young woman, she gamely goes through the frenzied motions but fails to convey any palpable sense of empathy with Angela and her plight. How could she when The Net is a study in virtual unreality?