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Anon – written and directed by Andrew Niccol (director of Gattaca and Simone, writer of The Truman Show) – couldn’t be released at a better time. Set in a near future where privacy no longer exists, the sci-fi has been given an added dose of timeliness by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Watching Anon knowing 50 million Facebook users’ information was collected without their knowledge for nefarious purposes gives viewers a feeling akin to watching a Black Mirror episode and thinking humanity isn’t to far from a dystopian future. However, while Niccol’s film addresses the ethical ramifications of new cutting-edge tech, one wishes the movie itself felt a lot more revolutionary.
In Anon’s future, the government is attempting to fight crime by eliminating privacy. People’s eyes record everything they do, and their records can be accessed by the police. Troubled cop Sal (Clive Owen) when investigating a string of murders, discovers all the victims had acts they had committed wiped from their records. This leads him to try bait an anonymous female hacker (Amanda Seyfried) specialising in deleting this type of footage. He goes undercover as a businessman needing her services, in attempt to solve the killings.
On the plus side, it looks like a great deal of care went into making the world of Anon feel believable. The environment of the sci-fi with its’ lack of bold colours feels very sterile, hinting that intrusive surveillance leads to a soulless existence. There is hardly anyone on the city streets, perhaps because people are so afraid of their actions being watched. Meanwhile, much of the film is seen from Sal’s perspective. Fitted with augmented reality implants, the police officer sees a person’s name, age and other important details pop up by their face when he stares at them. In lesser hands, this could be irritating, cluttering the frame. Yet, Niccol keeps the way the information is presented visually clean, never overwhelming the viewer.
The writer-director also does interesting things with the technology. For instance, as Sal walks past two people speaking in a foreign language, their speech translates to English in real-time. When he passes a watch store, targeted ads show him how the products would look on his hand. Perhaps, most cleverly, Niccol buries some neat world-building details into the augmented reality portions of the drama. When Sal’s boss Kenik (Peaky Blinders’ Iddo Goldberg) appears, text around his face mentions he was acquitted on corruption charges. While this detail does not factor into Anon’s drama, it builds suspicion nicely as well as hints at the world beyond the film’s tight narrative.
The film has a solid first act. Clive Owen’s jaded detective, at first, feels like an interesting neo-noir antihero. When Sal states: “By God, we actually got a whodunnit”, he genuinely seems excited at having the chance to solve a murder in an age where mysteries are no more because everyone is constantly watched. There’s also a sense that the movie after a slow beginning will gather momentum, particularly when Niccol breezes through months of undercover detective work (where Sal must pose a businessman whose cheated on his wife and needs the affair deleted) in a funny, smart montage.
However, after this, Anon just doesn’t pick up steam, sacrificing any sense of excitement for long talky scenes where people muse on the power of anonymity. Sal’s colleagues say: “We rely on transparency, we can’t control what we can’t see”. Seyfried’s hacker says: “It’s not that I have something to hide, I have nothing I want you to see”. Rinse and repeat for the final two acts. It’s great to have a sci-fi which has an involving story that also can be interpreted as a metaphor for an important issue. What’s not so great is having characters sum-up the point the film’s trying to make over and over again.
There is a sense that Niccol realised these scenes weren’t as engaging as he expected half-way through production and attempted to jazz things up with nudity, violence and plot-twists. However, the sexualisation of and violence against women in Anon leaves a bad taste. Did we really need multiple close-ups on the breasts of the prostitute Sal sleeps with, shots which return throughout the movie as if they are an example of Chekhov’s gun? Did we really need the two lesbians shot in the head graphically during sex? Maybe this wouldn’t be as much of an issue if Clive Owen was portrayed in such a way. However, when he has sex, he’s wearing a vest!
Also, disappointingly to give Sal added depth, Niccol includes a dead son in his past which feels so cliché (particularly in the wake of the similarly techy Westworld exposing that trope as being so). Meanwhile, the film goes through the late 1990s, early 2000s playbook of narrative beats where the killer is just some guy whose been in the background of the movie and has no reason for committing the crimes other than being crazy. When your potentially inventive film winds up reminding viewers of Kiss the Girls or Ashley Judd vehicle Twisted something is not right. For all it’s timeliness, Anon feels surprisingly dated.