Synopsis – In a world without anonymity or crime, a detective meets a woman who threatens their security.
My Take – Ah yet another week, and yet another Netflix original film has arrived. This latest dystopian thriller is the sort of film bound to elicit a litany of questions pertinent to our daily lives. How much do we value our privacy? Can we truly entrust those in power with unfettered access to our information? In this age of the surveillance state, where social media has made our personal data a commodity to be bought and sold, director Andrew Niccol presents us with an alternate version of our world where privacy is a myth, where every moment of your life is recorded and broadcast to everyone around you through a version of augmented reality tech connected to a worldwide network, some of this activities also include playing video games, making payments and phone calls.
As a fan of futurist cinema, the idea is interesting, albeit very much inspired by Black Mirror, the SFX seemed good enough to convey the premise well. With director Andrew Niccol at helm, who is known for exploring the nature of reality, the meaning of privacy, and a dystopian future as seen in films like Gattaca, The Truman Show and In Time, it seemed like this film was all prepared to dive into the hard science fiction realm I so clearly desired. However, a great pitch doesn’t necessarily mean a great script, as the film lacks depth, and with its painfully slow moving plot and questionable characters, the execution leaves much to be desired.
As the film following a compelling first two acts wraps itself up in disappointingly generic thriller film fashion with the revelation of the killer’s motive being a particularly head-scratching element. Sure, the film isn’t as terrible as some of the recent sci fi releases, but the low bar of success and lackluster nature of the overall story adds up to turn this one into yet another forgettable Netflix film that looks better on a poster than it does on the screen.
Set in the not so distant future, where everyone is connected to The Ether, a network which records their memories through their own eyes, the story follows Sal Frieland (Clive Owen), a detective, who is bored by reviewing everyone’s Mind’s Eye, a neurological software to which everyone is hooked on to and there is almost no crime for him to solve, as with no anonymity in this future, only few crimes take place. However, things begin to unravel when Sal and his partner Detective Charles Gattis (Colm Feore) stumble upon a series of murders which appear to be linked, where the killer has somehow managed to hack into their victims’ Mind’s Eye and alter what they see.
The victims’ POVs are of the murderer’s: they view their own death, not a view of the killer. The hacker-killer then wipes the victims’ histories from The Ether, so they leave no digital footprint, and no Meta trail of who they are. As Sal had earlier encountered a mysterious woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose info was also strangely hidden, he suspects her to be involved in the killings. With pressure from his superiors at the police force to solve the case, Sal agrees to act as bait by assuming a new identity, and hopes he can entrap and catch the killer before they kill again.
While watching this if you’re not thinking of director Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report starring Tom Cruise, throughout every single moment, you probably have never seen that, as you could easily make out most of the similarities. With a fascinating premise, the film has a solid first act as Sal’s jaded detective, at first, feels like an interesting neo-noir antihero and there’s also an underlying sense that the film would be slowly picking up its momentum, particularly when director Niccol breezes through months of undercover detective work where Sal must pose a business whose cheated on his wife and needs the affair deleted, in a funny, smart montage. Here, director Niccol has developed a good looking half-dystopian, and half-progressive society, and uses it as concept that explores the dangers of integrating technology into the human processes of vision and thinking.
The writer-director also does interesting things with the technology, for example, as Sal walks past two people speaking in a foreign language, their speech translates to English in real-time, or when he passes a watch store, targeted ads show him how the products would look on his hand. Perhaps, most cleverly, director Niccol buries some neat world-building details into the augmented reality portions of the drama, for example when Sal’s boss Kenik (Iddo Goldberg) appears, text around his face mentions he was acquitted on corruption charges. While this detail does not add anything into the film, it clearly hints at the world beyond the film’s tight narrative.
Its clear director Niccol wants this film to strive both as thoughtful allegory for our internet-obsessed times, as well as a genre thriller that builds an involving mystery. While I can’t say the film pulls both goals off with perfection, the film does enough to be watchable, mainly due to its visuals. The stark environments are desaturated even further in editing, adding to the underlying tension of the film. Sets are concrete, institutionalized and imposing structures, which could have been symbolic but aren’t fully realized within the plot. Societal regression might even be considered as a visual element considering the nostalgia that persists in characters’ near-constant smoking and drinking in suits cut in a style that is reminiscent of the 50’s.
Here, director Niccol also uses a lot of handled camerawork to create perspective shots of what our characters see when connected to the data center. This decision proves to be the film’s biggest benefit, as director Niccol often is able to create unique set pieces out of relatively familiar scenes. Even when the film struggles, director Niccol is able to at least keep the audience engaged with the many tricks he has up his sleeve. However, strong visuals are not enough to make up for the problems with the story. Even with its cool set up, and an every intriguingly atypical character trait, everything is abandoned for its own set of checklist of tropes. While the script does bring up some interesting ideas with the premise, it just never follows through on any them. There are way too many script clichés and tacky one-liners to a point it distracts from the plot.
The promising start seems to get watered down drastically with the bad script and mediocre delivery (sometimes it’s hard to distinguish which is at fault). Unnecessary nudity are abound, a shoehorned sex scene, all the tell-tale signs of low confidence in the plot’s interest levels. The problem with the plot is that even the gratuitous nudity couldn’t keep it afloat. The film’s final scene in particular is almost laughably-bad, as the character’s spell out the film’s agenda without an ounce of subtly. The mystery plot line here does start out interesting, but goes nowhere of interest as the resolution is far more convenient than it is interesting. Why does the murderer decide to murder these people? It’s never really explained, or maybe it is and I just didn’t work it out, but it left me a little confused at the end, good film I might watch again to see if I can pick up more of the plot I feel I’m missing something.
Although, the dead son sub-plot was an interesting touch, it just wasn’t explored enough. Instead of deepening the character it was brushed off as leverage for cheap tension. The main problem is that the film wants to be a sexual crime-thriller on par with Basic Instinct (1992), yet also instill a Dickian psycho-technophobia theme reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated Strange Days (1995). But director Niccol relies too much on surfaces and narrative clichés to distinguish his film from this well-mined territory. Only if Black Mirror had not already explored such similar ideas, then this one would have felt better. As is, the film takes an inventive idea squanders it on derivative storytelling. The film’s performances are alright too. Led by Clive Owen, who is always worth watching, despite his questionable choices in films, and Amanda Seyfried, for her part, does fine with an intentionally opaque character. Colm Feore is also good in a supporting role. On the whole, ‘Anon’ is a disappointing science fiction flick which despite a fascinating high-concept setup devolves itself into rehashed tired tropes.
Directed – Andrew Niccol
Rated – R
Run Time – 100 minutes