“Anon winds up rather uninvolving, as its mediocre detective tale fizzles out under a bland commentary on technology.”
by Ken Bakely
There’s never a bad time to talk about the complex intersection of technology and privacy, but Andrew Niccol’s Anon proves that there are always bad ways to talk about it. It’s a staid neo-noir so fixed on trying to create a believably dystopian society that the mystery’s resolution is relegated to unsatisfying, sporadic bursts of information. The plain color scheme – ensconced in various blocks of grey and white – and pedestrian characterization are further signals of the flaws at hand. It plays like a thousand page novel shrunken into a single feature-length movie, and yet it lacks even a fraction of the depth and insight that adapting such extensive source material would actually entail.
The concept creates only enough energy for basic interest: Sal (Clive Owen) is an NYPD homicide detective in a totalitarian near-future. From birth, every citizen is enrolled in a program that records their visual input and uploads it to a central database. Solving a murder in this world is easy. The police can subpoena the victim’s memories and play their final moments back, getting a clear view of the killer. It’s such an accepted part of everyday life that when a series of connected cases come about where Sal and his colleagues can’t just watch a video and make an arrest, it’s seen as a major emergency. A string of wealthy victims have had the last few seconds of their video feed erased from the database, and so there’s no way to see who shot them. The investigation reveals that they were all in contact with a high-cost hacker on the black market – a woman (Amanda Seyfried) so off-the-grid she doesn’t even divulge her name – paying to have certain illegal acts or otherwise incriminating encounters erased from the record.
It doesn’t take much more sleuthing to figure out that she’s the killer, but actually finding evidence and tracking her down is quite challenging. Sal goes undercover as a stockbroker who solicits her services, and from there, Anon establishes its noirish tendencies, with Seyfried’s character as the femme fatale. Their interactions are relegated to genre roles, with Owen’s hardboiled persona pitted against Seyfried’s elusive and mischievous attempts at manipulating him and shaking him to his core. Such interplay, even when coming from two capable actors, rarely moves beyond its most obvious boundaries. Personalities are constrained to ideas and individual decisions, as Niccol peppers in story developments with distant disconnect. Characters roam around in a drab world, live mundane lives, and generally have things happen to them, instead of interacting with their surroundings and letting things organically evolve.
This lack of insight creates more problems elsewhere. Much depends on the central surveillance program, but little is said about its history and workability. People can access their own video archives at will, and send memories to others. They can walk down the street and – except for a small few, like Seyfried’s character – learn the names, occupations, and biographies of every passer-by; an AR program floats text and images above their heads. The movie’s first few minutes, depicting Sal’s typical morning commute, overload us with information on how Anon’s biosynthesis permeates every aspect of everyone’s life. But from there, it becomes an ill-defined analogue for a tech-heavy society without a shred of privacy. By the film’s midpoint, it’s a glorified smartphone that types texts, makes calls, and holds onto money. Whatever Niccol was trying to say about the implications of our own culture’s embrace of the Internet of Things gets dropped as quickly as it’s proposed.
Anon winds up rather uninvolving, as its mediocre detective tale fizzles out under a bland commentary on technology. There’s nothing brutally misguided here: no awful performances, no terrible plot twists, no ridiculous setpieces. It exists in a state of pure limbo, trying to capture the hot-button phenomena of a property like Black Mirror while shaving off every sharp edge or possible point of thematic provocation. To the film’s credit, we get to know its settings through capable direction, as Niccol’s camera does move with an eye towards establishing spacial relations and fluidly capturing action sequences. But while we gain a foothold in a futuristic New York, we still don’t know who really resides there, how they interact with this fundamental change in daily life, and what that means for the movie’s main characters. It prioritizes telling over showing, and implications over engagements.