Netflix's latest original film (courtesy of Gattaca's Andrew Niccol) gets bogged down in its near-future technology, and forgets to stick the landing.
Netflix’s latest dystopian thriller Anon is the sort of movie 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? And if you can make people hallucinate so badly that it puts their lives in danger, then why wouldn’t a killer murder people that way instead of shooting them in the forehead while putting themselves at risk?
It would be nice if Anon could have at least answered those first two questions. Instead, director Andrew Niccol (who, between Gattaca and In Time, is no stranger to crafting gimmicky technological futures) introduces a sleek and engaging world that is all polish, with no interest in saying anything substantive. As a future-tech police procedural, Minority Report this ain’t.
Anon takes place in the not-so-distant future, where everyone’s hooked up to a neurological software called The Mind’s Eye – which is essentially equal parts Google Glass and the brain-hacking tech from Watch Dogs and Black Mirror’s “The Entire History of You.” Everyone has it, including babies, and it augments the world so an ever-changing HUD is mapped over everything you see. Each person you walk past has a name, job, and bio appear next to them. Buildings are adorned with stories-high Gucci logos. Your entire waking life is recorded, and memories are stored for viewing at any time you wish.
We’re tossed in the deep end of this world in the opening minutes of Anon, as we follow the point of view of Detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) as he walks to work. It’s an overwhelming, yet calmingly well-designed pile of information as he walks past people and store fronts -hat is, until a mysterious woman (Amanda Seyfried) passes him and the only info that registers for her is “Unknown|ERROR.”When he tries to play the memory back, the mysterious woman is no longer there.
As a detective, Sal has complete access to any memory he could want. His workday essentially consists of people coming into a small interrogation room, stating who they’re trying to find or who they think stole something, Sal looking into all the pertinent memories available, and solving the case within ten minutes. However, all that falls apart when Sal and his partner Detective Charles Gattis (Colm Feore) are called into a murder scene to find that not only has the victim’s memories been hacked, but that their vision was superimposed onto the murderer’s perspective, hiding the killer’s identity.
“Looks like we finally have an actual whodunit on our hands,” sighs Sal. So, what does that mean? Old school police work? Tracking down perps the hard way? Nah. Those tactics are for suckers. From here on out, its nothing but unfounded hunches that happen to be right every single time.
It’s at this point that every cool set up, every unique twist, every intriguingly atypical character trait (such as Sal’s genuine empathy and nuanced view of when it’s right for someone to steal) is completely abandoned for a checklist of tropes:
Does Sal have a dead kid? Yep.
Is he divorced because of that? Oh, yeah.
Does he drink too? Only when he’s alone. Which is a whole lot of the time.
Once she’s allowed to speak, Amanda Seyfried’s nameless character is overwhelmed by similar femme fatale conventions. The police are certain that she is the killer (due to her l33t haxxor skillz) and what starts out as an awesomely mysterious and potentially dangerous character quickly devolves into the female protagonist archetype that exists only in the movies. She never has a substantive scene by herself, has just enough power to make her interesting(but not so much power that she could save herself) and, of course, she’s there to have sex with the male lead after six lines of dialogue and a sad monologue.
It is such an overwhelming shame too, especially once the killer infiltrates Sal’s mind and begins to make him hallucinate. The killer makes him think a dog is attacking him. He makes it look like a hallway is on fire (which Sal shoots at, because as we all remember, it’s stop, drop, and empty your clip). He forces Sal to watch the death of his son, from every angle possible, including the boy’s. That is a psychopathy that would have been amazing to see in the Mysterious Woman (whether she was the killer or not) and could have given Seyfried so much to work with. Especially when her motivation to be so anonymous and unknown seemed to be based in a very fervent “just because.”
Overall, Anon is a movie that suffers from underthinking the consequences of the world its created. Why does the killer choose a gun over hallucinations? Why wouldn’t you turn off the tech if you started hallucinating your greatest fears and worst moments? If you can make the police hallucinate a dead body to frame someone, then how does that not become the most pressing issue in the entire world? Seriously, why would you shoot a fire!?
It’s an overwhelming shame, because a great amount of wonderful work was put into the technology that anchors Anon’s premise. Despite (or perhaps because) of the cleverness of its conceit, the rest of Anon is constantly left in the shadow of that work.