Tuesday, May 8, 2018

On Netflix: ANON (2018)

(Germany/US/Canada - 2018)

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol. Cast: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Mark O'Brien, Sonya Walger, Joe Pingue, Iddo Goldberg, Charlie Ebbs, Damon Runyan, Sara Mitich, Doug Murray, Jean Michel Le Gal, Douglas Stolfi. (Unrated, 100 mins)

The Netflix pickup ANON finds filmmaker Andrew Niccol back in the realm of high-concept sci-fi that briefly established him as the Next Big Thing in the 1990s. He's best known for writing and directing 1997's GATTACA and he received an Oscar nomination for scripting 1998's THE TRUMAN SHOW. Since then, Niccol's career has been on an erratic trajectory, splitting time between further explorations in sci-fi like the 2002 Al Pacino flop S1M0NE and 2011's terrible IN TIME, and political films like 2005's LORD OF WAR and 2015's barely-released drone treatise GOOD KILL, which was overshadowed by the more successful sleeper hit EYE IN THE SKY. He also tried his hand at big-budget YA sci-fi with 2013's THE HOST, but 20 years on, Niccol still hasn't matched the one-two punch of GATTACA and THE TRUMAN SHOW. His latest film ANON explores themes previously seen in his earlier sci-fi films but with middling and repetitive results. The production design is superb and it's a very expensive-looking film, but after a promising start, Niccol's script devolves into a string of rote cliches and tired genre tropes, becoming the kind of film that doesn't even bother following its own internal logic.

Set in a dystopian near-future (is there any other kind?), ANON presents a world where everyone's POV is one of constant information. Pass a stranger on the street, you get a readout of their name, age, and vital stats. Order a hot dog from a food truck, and the nutritional information is displayed. It's a totalitarian practice that makes crime solving easy for glum, burned-out cop Sal Frieland (Clive Owen). He can simply look at a victim, access the playback of the last ten seconds of their life, and see what the victim saw. But after coming across several corpses whose digital memories have been hacked and scrambled, it's clear to Frieland and his boss Gattis (Colm Feore) that they're dealing with a "ghost," a face without a name that goes about undetected, their stats and identity not in "The Ether," a term used to describe the seemingly limitless digital reality that holds the data and images and the place in which they venture to solve crimes. The only thing they know for sure is that the killer is female, and the trail eventually leads to "Anon" (Amanda Seyfried, also in IN TIME), a mercenary hacker who specializes in erasing memories and playback that a client wants gone, be it criminal activities, extramarital affairs, etc. But Anon's clients are turning up dead, so Frieland goes undercover as an investment broker for over a month, establishing an identity and memories outside of his existence as a cop and then seeking out "memory hackers" in the hopes that he'll draw Anon out of hiding, setting himself up as bait to catch her in the act. This ultimately leads to Frieland's perception of reality becoming dangerously skewed as Anon--or someone--gets inside his head and starts toying with his mind.

After an intriguing set-up, ANON soon demonstrates little urgency settling into a groove of Philip K. Dick worship combined with Niccol's usual sci-fi fixations of identity, individuality, and privacy. It all culminates in a heavy-handed lecture from Anon for a final scene, and the ultimate reveal of the guilty party is largely a non-event since we don't even spend enough time with the character in question for it to pack much resonance. And the longer ANON goes on, the more careless it becomes. Every inconsistency or deux ex machina that it pulls out of its ass can be explained away with "He got in my memory...that's what he wanted me to think!" The biggest eye-roller comes after Frieland spends over a month undercover and hires Anon to do a job and the cybersecurity experts working with the police are able to begin tracking her. After three days back as a cop, Gattis tells Frieland he has to go back undercover and re-establish contact with Anon, which concerns Frieland since his most recent memories and experiences will show him being a cop doing cop things and investigating her. "We'll put a patch over it!" Gattis says, as if Frieland has asked him a silly question. A patch? If you could just "put a patch over it" and mask the memories, then why make Frieland spend over a month working as an investment broker, creating a fake girlfriend for him to cheat on with a real hooker in order to give Anon a specific memory to digitally wipe when they could've just faked it all along? A patch? Owen treads on familiar ground here, with Frieland essentially being a cop version of his CHILDREN OF MEN character. Niccol doesn't really do Owen any favors, giving Frieland a checklist of cliched baggage--he's an alcoholic, his kid was killed in a tragic accident, and he's got a bitchy and unsympathetic ex-wife (Sonya Walger) who's moved on--that's supposed to function as backstory. ANON certainly isn't terrible, but it's tired and uninspired, feeling like the kind of sci-fi movie that should've hit theaters in 2002 or thereabouts. In a way, Netflix is the perfect venue for it, since there's a good chance at least some people will mistake it for a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode.

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