The Big Year and The Net
I usually don’t put movies I’m re-watching in these double reviews, but I last saw The Net in the theater, in 1995, so it’s almost like seeing a new movie. The Sandra Bullock thriller follows the terrible adventures of Angela Bennett, who becomes the target of a malevolent criminal hacker conspiracy aimed at gaining control of something or other. It doesn’t really matter what they want to do, just that they’re able to change all the records of her life so that she becomes someone else as far as the law is concerned. Then she’s on the run, etc etc. You get it. The Big Year, by contrast, follows the adventures of three birders trying to see as many bird species as possible in a single calendar year. It’s a charming character study with lovely settings, and well worth the price of admission (it’s running in circulation on HBO right now, so that price is relatively low if you are a subscriber).
A few thoughts about these movies:
- Obviously, both films explore how new technology changes our world. The birders in The Big Year take full advantage of the possibilities afforded by the networked world, using cell phones to coordinate and find the latest news. Up-to-the-minute forecasting shapes their decisions, and they use digital recordings to practice their bird calls. The Net is limited in this way, being set sixteen years earlier and thus at the birth of the Internet age. That said, Angela Bennett orders pizza online and teleworks from home. For being an “amazing” hacker, though, she doesn’t seem to have much in the way of counter-measures against the villains. Enemy of the State played this same plot much better, to my mind.
- At the same time, the importance of human interaction stands out as a key plot point in both films. The Net turns on Bennett’s anti-social personality, her tendency to do everything she can remotely–did I mention that she orders pizza online?!?!?!! Because she’s cultivated almost zero face-to-face relationships, Angela has no one to turn to when the villains change her identity after stealing her passport and other documents. (Jenny and I discussed this scenario and realized that for most people, it just wouldn’t work — we know too many people in the world around us.) The Big Year explores the challenges of an all-absorbing habit like birding on the relationships of the people around the birders. In each of the three storylines, the man has to make a decision about whether to sacrifice pieces of his personal life on the quest for a record-breaking “big year.”
- The supporting cast in each film features an actor you know well providing emotional support and a solid romantic lead for one of the characters to pursue. In The Big Year, Rashida Jones plays the tentative love interest for Jack Black’s character. The Net features Dennis Miller as one of the few people Angela knows face to face. I’m not going to give anything away, but to tantalize you, I will say that one of these characters faces extreme peril at the hands of a secret cabal of Internet activists, and the other does some impressive bird calls. Not telling which is which, though.
- Minor spoiler: Both films feature intense moments of betrayal. In The Net, Bennett’s romance with the mysterious stranger (Jeremy Northam) goes sour when it turns out he’s a hitman/hacker hired to retrieve a disc from her. After they’ve slept together on a boat at sea, he turns on her, reveling in the pain he’s causing as he prepares to murder her. It’s a brutal scene, one that holds up very well. Bullock plays the hurt just right. The Big Year‘s betrayal arc is pretty short, taking up roughly 20 minutes of the film, but it works really well. Because there’s a competitive aspect to doing a “Big Year,” the birders in the film hide this fact from one another, generally. When the betrayal over this secret keeping happens, it’s a normal human-scale conflict, and it’s solved in the way real adults solve problems, by talking about them.
- Other connections: Both films make hay of missed transportation (a crucial missed plane vs a crucial delay in crossing a drawbridge), enjoy exotic locales (tropical beaches vs. frozen North Pacific islands), and employ sneaky people to dig through other people’s things (The Net‘s hackers dig through Angela’s life, while a snooping blog reporter digs through one of the birder’s bags and outs him as doing a big year).
Both films are enjoyable, though The Net has aged poorly. I think Enemy of the State holds up much better and has an almost identical plot, though they use the trope of giving the running person some expert help, which makes the film flow a lot more smoothly.
The Big Year, by contrast, is a nice character study, a meditation on life goals, relationships, and passionate hobbies. Worth a watch, if you appreciate such things. (Reminds me a bit of Pirate Radio and a bit of Station Agent. Somewhere between these two.)