Sandra Bullock and the Rise of Tech – The New York Times

At some point in the future, the sentient beings running the planet may want to study how the humans dealt with the technological revolution of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
After they have ingested the pertinent scholarly essays and news reports, they will have a pretty good idea of how we managed the shift to a world increasingly driven by machines. And that might be enough.
But why stop at enough when they might deepen their understanding by looking into something that might seem irrelevant at first glance: the films of Sandra Bullock, one of the biggest stars of the transitional period.
Ms. Bullock had the good or bad fortune to have been born in 1964, meaning she was young enough to adapt to tech culture when it came along but old enough to mourn the passing of the environment that had shaped her.
Her movies are time capsules that preserve the look and feel of discrete moments in tech, some of them all but forgotten. When you find yourself watching the 2002 romantic comedy “Two Weeks Notice” on this or that streaming platform, you can’t help but fixate on the clamshell phone that Hugh Grant uses to call Ms. Bullock from a bar at 2:15 a.m.
Or maybe you’re caught up in “The Proposal,” a 2009 comedy in which she plays a New York publishing boss, and you’re momentarily thrown from the story when our heroine, far from home and without a laptop, steps into an internet cafe to send an email. You pause to consider the fate of those little establishments, which once seemed to be everywhere and are now … gone?
Speed (1994)
Ms. Bullock became a star thanks to her knack for playing a quirky Everywoman whose secret strength comes to the fore when she is put to the test. You underestimate a Sandra Bullock character at your peril. Like Jimmy Stewart for earlier generations of moviegoers, she is a gloriously imperfect stand-in for you and me.
All kinds of social issues crop up in her movies, but a consistent through line is how we have grappled, often fumblingly, with technological change. Ms. Bullock’s onscreen relationship to tech is thus quite unlike that of a fellow box-office champ from the same period, Tom Cruise, whose more obviously heroic characters demonstrate a slick command of advanced gadgetry in the “Top Gun” and “Mission: Impossible” blockbusters.
Speed (1994)
Ms. Bullock made her breakthrough in “Speed,” playing an office worker, Annie Porter, who ends up behind the wheel of a Los Angeles city bus that is rigged to blow up if its speed dips below 50 miles per hour. The movie was a hit thanks to its catchy premise and the felicitous pairing of Ms. Bullock and Keanu Reeves, who plays a serene bomb-disposal officer, Jack Traven.
The crashes, explosions and flirtatious repartee camouflage the fact that “Speed” is, at its heart, an analog-versus-digital fable. Along the course of an action-packed morning, Annie and Jack make use of soon-to-be-outdated technological tools to vanquish a madman who relies on state-of-the-art gizmos.
In 1994, when “Speed” was a summertime blockbuster, roughly 31 percent of households in the United States had a computer, and a majority of people who gained access to the internet paid dearly for each online minute as their modems hissed.
This was the toddlerhood of digital tech, when many Americans seemed put off by the World Wide Web’s rambunctious arrival on the scene. “What is internet, anyway?” the “Today” show co-anchor Bryant Gumbel asked in an exasperated tone during a 1994 broadcast segment that has since gone viral.
When the villain of “Speed,” played by Dennis Hopper, lays out his plan, he does so while speaking on a cellphone. His lair includes several televisions, as well as an internet-enabled computer allowing him to track the bus’s location and speed. One of his TVs displays a live security-camera feed of Annie, Jack and the passengers.
To show he means business, the Hopper character kills a hostage by detonating an explosive device via remote control from his apartment. Seconds later, his eyes glued to a TV news report of the fatality, he delivers a line suggesting that, in the world of “Speed,” evil and tech innovations go hand in hand: “Interactive TV, Jack! Wave of the future!”
But he has a weakness that can be exploited by those skilled in the old ways. The police cobble together a 60-second video of the security-cam footage and play it on a loop as Annie and Jack help carry out a high-speed evacuation of the bus. When the villain realizes he has been duped by mere VHS trickery, he lets out a howl. Human ingenuity, aided by good old analog tech, has saved the day.
The Net (1995)
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
The Net (1995)
Ms. Bullock’s next action movie, “The Net,” released in 1995, had a prescient focus on identity theft and the overreach of Silicon Valley, subject matter that made an impression on audiences and critics of the time. “Do You Exist if the Internet Erases You?” The New York Times asked in the review’s headline.
At the film’s start, Ms. Bullock’s character, a computer programmer, is at ease with the new tech and its attendant culture. She works from home, making her perhaps the first film protagonist to be a remote employee in the current sense of the term. She has online buddies, like Cyberbob and Iceman, and she’s skilled enough in the ways of the internet to pull off something that seemed novel at the time: ordering a pizza online. The camera lingers on the process, lending the scene the feel of an instructional film.
The rest adds up to a cautionary tale. In “The Net,” even the web’s natives suspect that their way of life may lead to a fraying of the ties that bind the human community. “No one leaves the house anymore,” Iceman says in an online chat. “No one has sex. The Net is the ultimate condom.” Ms. Bullock’s character replies: “Talk like that, Iceman, could lead to the eventual extinction of our species.”
She soon stumbles onto a software virus hatched by a ruthless tech company. When she starts investigating, all records of her identity are deleted, and she is listed in government databases as a terrorist.
She realizes her online skills will not help her overcome the villain, a stylish tech bro. Her only recourse is to go full analog: In the climactic sequence, she bonks him on his genius head, twice, with a fire extinguisher. As in “Speed,” the old order, with Ms. Bullock as its champion, is restored — and our high-tech future is put off for another day.
While You Were Sleeping (1995)
In the mid-’90s, most people could get through the day just fine without a lot of personal tech. So audiences didn’t particularly notice that cellphones and laptops had no role in Ms. Bullock’s other film of 1995, “While You Were Sleeping.”
The heroine, a humble token-booth employee who lives with her cat, has a crush on one of her regular customers, a handsome businessman played by Peter Gallagher. When he is shoved onto the train tracks, she saves his life. At the hospital, where he spends days in an attractive coma, she allows the staff to believe she is his fiancée. The film becomes a love-triangle comedy with the arrival of the patient’s brother, a carpenter played by Bill Pullman.
To learn about the hunky coma patient, Ms. Bullock’s character goes through his personal effects. She finds a wallet that includes photographs of himself (conceited much?) and a proximity key fob for a BMW, a gadget that was starting to become standard issue for luxury cars in the ’90s. It is the only significant tech device in this throwback tale and helps form a portrait of her crush as a shallow guy.
The Pullman character, by contrast, wears flannel shirts and drives an old pickup. He is also onto her ruse. In a parking garage, she’s holding the fob when he zings her with questions to test her knowledge of his brother and suggests that she has no idea where the BMW is parked. He’s right about that — but when she presses a button, a nearby car chirps, allowing her to continue her playacting and postpone the moment when she and the salt-of-the-earth carpenter can acknowledge their love for each other.
28 Days (2000)
Miss Congeniality (2000)
Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005)
28 Days (2000)
In the next decade, tech devices became an almost unnoticed part of the cinematic furniture, and the onscreen Ms. Bullock allows them into her life with mixed results. In “28 Days,” a 2000 film about an alcoholic, her character is headed for rock bottom when she commandeers a limo while drunk. Holding a Sony cellphone to her ear, she narrowly avoids several collisions before plowing into a house. At the time of filming, Westchester County, where the scene takes place, was considering a law banning the use of hand-held cellphones on the road.
Miss Congeniality (2000)
The 2000 blockbuster “Miss Congeniality” stars Ms. Bullock as Gracie Hart, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later F.B.I. agent who goes undercover at a beauty pageant. At the time of its release, just over 50 percent of American adults used the internet, according to Pew Research Center, and the fledgling web is integral to the film’s plot.
In an early scene, Agent Hart’s colleagues are trying to find “a female F.B.I. agent under age 35,” as one character puts it, who can pose as a pageant contestant. Sitting near a row of bulky computers, this group of mostly male agents, along with our gum-chewing heroine, visits a website, Dress Up Sally, that offers simulations of what various people would look like in swimsuits and gowns. The cut-and-paste images on the screen are a long way from today’s deepfakes, but enough to excite the men in the room.
As various women are put through the internet wringer, the group grows raucous. Agent Hart looks on, blank-faced. In “Miss Congeniality,” the web is not so much a game-changing technology as it is the plaything of adolescent-minded men in positions of authority. The scene makes plain that Agent Hart faces a twofold challenge: In addition to nailing the culprit, she must navigate a world steeped in sexism, one that the internet seems likely to exacerbate.
Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005)
By the time of the 2005 sequel, “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous,” the web has become more useful to her, as it had to the 36 million Americans who were using computers to download movies and songs. Agent Hart is now the owner of a pearly white iBook G4 laptop, a machine considerably thicker than the MacBooks of today. It was part of a line that Apple put out from 2003 to 2005, when its products had become status symbols.
In this time of tech optimism, a visit to a bright, clean Apple store was a trip to retail heaven, rather than a loathsome errand. “Miss Congeniality 2” matches the moment in having Agent Hart solve the case by using her iBook to analyze footage that shows the kidnappers snatching the victims from a sidewalk.
The scene of her watching the video while lounging in bed also provides a rose-hued illustration of the enmeshment of digital devices with our private lives.
All About Steve (2009)
The Blind Side (2009)
All About Steve (2009)
But tech’s tendency to worm its way into intimate moments is not always such a wonderful thing. In the 2009 comedy “All About Steve,” Ms. Bullock plays a socially awkward person who relies on pen and paper in her job as crossword puzzle maker for The Sacramento Herald. When she goes on a blind date with a cable news cameraman played by Bradley Cooper, it is love at first sight, at least from her perspective.
She lunges at him moments after laying eyes on him, announcing, “I am going to eat you like a mountain lion!” That’s when tech enters the story, to her detriment, in the form of a vibrating cellphone. The man takes a slim device from his pocket before telling her he must go, because of a breaking news story.
The Blind Side (2009)
In “The Blind Side,” she plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, a no-nonsense interior decorator, businesswoman and mother in Memphis, Tenn., who takes into her home a Black teenager who has survived poverty and abuse and helps guide him to a college football scholarship.
Tech is prominent in Ms. Tuohy’s grand entrance. The camera tracks her as she strides through a crowd on the way to her daughter’s volleyball game while conducting a work call on her cell. The image she projects, with the help of the prop at her ear, is that of the 21st-century multitasker, someone who is physically present but mentally elsewhere, someone who is too big for the room.
Gravity (2013)
Bird Box (2018)
The Lost City (2022)
Gravity (2013)
Ms. Bullock battled most valiantly against technology in “Gravity,” a 2013 film about a space shuttle mission gone wrong. She plays Ryan Stone, a biomedical engineer on her first trip beyond the stratosphere. Her job is to equip the Hubble Space Telescope with an X-ray imaging device of her own design.
She is experiencing severe motion sickness as she tries to perform her task. Disaster strikes when explosions rumble through the satellite belt. Shortly before the fast-moving debris destroys the shuttle, the lead astronaut, a cheerful sort played by George Clooney, takes a moment to gaze upon Earth. “Half of North America just lost their Facebook,” he says.
He dies soon afterward, leaving Dr. Stone alone in the vastness of space. She must summon the will to go on while figuring out how to fly two small spacecrafts. If she cannot master the tech, she will die.
Her prospects seem dim as she struggles to make sense of a jargon-heavy manual. She hits a low point when the second spacecraft runs out of fuel. She shuts all systems down and gives up.
In the profound silence, she realizes she might be able to use the landing thrusters to propel herself toward Earth’s atmosphere. She decides to give it a try but has no idea which button to push. “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe,” she says, before landing on her choice.
After she crash-lands in a lake, the film ends with what will become something of a trope in Sandra Bullock movies: a shot of her in a lush natural setting. Filmed from below in the final moment of “Gravity,” she looks powerful, like a new Eve, as she walks into the green surroundings.
Bird Box (2018)
In “Bird Box,” a 2018 film about an unexplained apocalyptic event and its aftermath, countless people commit suicide when they see something in front of them. An early victim is a young woman who is shown talking on a smartphone; the next time we see her, she is bashing her head into a glass wall. Did her death have something to do with the smartphone? An evil meme, perhaps? That would make sense for a film that came out when techno-optimism had soured amid the rise of bot farms, spyware and the social-media-assisted spread of conspiracy theories.
The “Bird Box” protagonist forms a bond with survivors who have holed up in a house. Digital tech becomes crucial to them when they take a car to the supermarket: Because they cannot look at the outside world, they black out the windows and rely on GPS to navigate the corpse-ridden streets. Later, Ms. Bullock squires her two children through wild terrain unaided by any device. She finds her reward in an idyllic settlement deep in a forest. She has moved from the tech-strewn 21st century to a setting reminiscent of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The Lost City (2022)
“The Lost City” follows a similar arc. In this 2022 action-adventure comedy, Ms. Bullock plays a widowed romance novelist who has the mind-set of an academic. Attempting a comeback after years away from the scene, she finds that the publishing industry has changed in her absence, thanks to the rise of social media. Image now trumps content, and her fans are more interested in the model who poses for her book covers, played by Channing Tatum, than the author herself.
She is less than pleased when her editor introduces her to an extremely online young woman who will be her social media manager. “She’s going to be helping us target that younger demographic,” the editor says, “meaning women in their 30s who wish they were in their 20s.” Cue Bullock eye roll.
She is soon kidnapped and whisked to a remote island. And so a film that begins in the world of smartphones and social media ends up in a place that smacks of the jungle serials popular nearly a century ago. In the 2020s, this counts as an attractive fantasy.
With tech no longer seen as a part of the solution, “The Lost City” concludes with Ms. Bullock and Mr. Tatum on a tropical beach. They are locked in a kiss, as far as you can get from the digital life.
“Speed” (20th Century Fox), “While You Were Sleeping” (Buena Vista Pictures), “The Net” (Columbia Pictures), “28 Days” (Columbia Pictures), “Miss Congeniality” (Warner Bros. Pictures), “Two Weeks Notice” (Warner Bros. Pictures), “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous” (Warner Bros. Pictures), “The Proposal” (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures), “All About Steve” (20th Century Fox), “The Blind Side” (Warner Bros. Pictures), “Gravity” (Warner Bros. Pictures), “Bird Box” (Netflix), “The Lost City” (Paramount Pictures). Design and development by Shannon Lin and Gabriel Gianordoli.


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