Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has pretty much cornered the market on technology-inspired dystopia, but long before prime ministers were having sex with pigs or autonomous robot dogs were terrorizing the Scottish moors, there was the work of Andrew Niccol. The writer-director first garnered attention for his debut feature, Gattaca, a science fiction drama portraying a future where genetically preferable citizens enjoy superior standing in a eugenics-fueled caste system. And in movies like S1m0ne and In Time, he’s continued to explore the darker implications of technology’s inevitable march forward.
His new film Anon, which is now available on Netflix, follows that same trend — only this time, Niccol is turning his spotlight toward privacy issues, and the Orwellian implications of a world in which everyone’s lives are constantly recorded in the name of safety. At least, that’s Anon’s potential. The film’s reality is slightly less impressive. It’s a beautiful movie with excellent technical execution, and compelling actors including Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried as its leads. But Anon never delivers on the promise of its core ideas. It’s an amiable thriller that will definitely account for an enjoyable couple of hours in the lives of Netflix subscribers, though it likely won’t leave the same impact as Niccol’s best work.
Warning: minor spoilers for Anon below.
Sal Frieland (Owen) is a detective in a world where augmented reality implants are ubiquitous and unquestioned. From infancy, citizens live every moment of their waking lives with a heads-up display laid over their vision, offering information, data, and ways to remotely interface with the physical world. It’s like Google Glass, only built into people’s heads, and not entirely terrible. But along with that interface comes what’s called a “record” — a video recording of everything every individual sees in their life. That’s where Frieland’s detective duties come in; he scrubs through people’s memories to determine who did what, solving crimes by literally looking through the victims’ eyes — or the perpetrators’.
As far as Frieland and his law-enforcement colleagues know, the system is foolproof — until they face a series of murders where victims appear to have had their vision hacked and replaced with their killer’s perspective. When Frieland comes across a mysterious, anonymous hacker (Amanda Seyfried), a “cipher” who has vanished from the tracking database altogether, he wonders if she could be the one responsible. That spurs an investigation that leaves him questioning the most basic assumptions about his surveillance-state society.
That may sound like the makings of a slick, futuristic riff on Minority Report, but what Niccol has really crafted with Anon is a good old-fashioned noir. Frieland is a broken man with a drinking problem and an ex-wife he can’t let go of. Seyfried’s mysterious hacker bears all the hallmark tropes of a femme fatale. The film is sometimes regressive. At one point, the male detectives conclude that the hacker has sex with, then kills, nearly everyone she does business with, apparently for no reason other than the familiar black widow archetype. But the movie does flip some of those conventions on their heads by the time it reaches its conclusion.
The genre does make for an effective bit of mood-setting, particularly in conjunction with the tilted hats and retro suits put together by costume designer Christopher Hargadon and the stark visuals by cinematographer Amir Mokri. Niccol has always been skilled at creating futuristic alt-worlds, and the same holds true in Anon, with the film’s austere aesthetic sensibilities and use of existing locations giving it a sense of timelessness. Anon portrays a world that’s neither rooted completely in the past nor totally in the future. It’s a hodgepodge, pulling together references both old and new, giving off the impression of a future society that’s enamored with the style of the past in order to ground itself.
The big exception here is the futuristic AR overlay. The film frequently dips into the subjective points of view of its various characters, showing the way Frieland sees a person’s name, age, profession, and other salient details pop up by their face when he passes them in the street, or how a conversation in a foreign language may be translated into real-time subtitles. It’s visually busy, but not enough to be implausible as a potential future UI. Then, there are the ads. Anon plays with the idea only briefly, but in the film, there are no physical signs or advertisements, just microtargeted virtual ads that appear via each person’s individual AR interface. In one early scene, Frieland walks by a display hawking luxury watches, and as he gets closer, he actually gets to see what it would be like to have one of the watches right there on his wrist. It’s probably the best-realized bit of future prognostication in the entire film because it feels so inevitable. Customers are already able to use augmented reality smartphone apps to put virtual furniture in their house; Anon’s take seems like the obvious next step.
The problem with the whole thing, however, is that the movie clearly wants to be about the perils of a world in which people have given up their privacy — yet the world it presents doesn’t actually seems all that horrible. The AR functionality everyone lives with seems overbearing, but there’s real utility there that’s fairly compelling. And while there’s obviously a knee-jerk negative reaction to the notion of some government agency recording everything we see and hear, the movie centers itself around a detective that demonstrably puts the technology to good use, rationalizing away the inherent moral quandary of its own premise.
Even the idea of intrusive, personalized ads, which have been unnerving in past movies like Minority Report, come off as nothing more than the evolution of modern web-browsing in Anon. The very thing that makes the idea so compelling in the film — that it feels like such a logical leap from where we are today — also robs it of any sinister urgency. In fact, the lone force arguing that any of these things are actually bad in Anon is Seyfried’s mysterious hacker, and she seems to have no motivation or explanation beyond a quippy catchphrase in the film’s final moments.
There is one thing that feels like a demonstrable threat in Anon, however: the idea that an always-on augmented reality display could be hijacked to make someone think they’re seeing things that aren’t there. It’s an idea Black Mirror has explored before, in Dan Trachtenberg’s gaming cautionary tale Playtest. It’s such a chilling idea, it serves as the focal point of Anon’s trailer, but in the film itself, it’s really nothing more than a wrinkle used for an entertaining action scene or two. It’s a shame because that idea seems like the most interesting and exciting takeaway from the film. Nefarious forces hacking our perception seems like a perfect metaphor for the era of Russian Twitter bots and gamed Facebook algorithms, but the film leaves the concept largely unexplored, making it feel strangely behind the times, despite its futuristic bent.
Not every movie needs to be some timely allegory for the cultural challenges we face today. There is plenty of well-crafted, disposable fun in watching Frieland weave his way through the mystery of the strange murders and watching the film’s surprises unfold. But Anon isn’t a popcorn flick; it’s an elevated, arthouse-friendly drama that wants to say something, and Niccol clearly has feelings and ideas about the issues he wraps the film in. With Anon, he just isn’t able to articulate a compelling case for them. Leaving much more interesting ideas on the table isn’t a crime. But it does leave the movie destined, much like Seyfried’s mystery hacker, to disappear into the digital ether without a trace.
Anon is now available on Netflix.