11th May2018

‘Anon’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Sonya Walger, Mark O’Brien, Joe Pingue, Iddo Goldberg, Sebastian Pigott, Rachel Roberts, Ethan Tavares, Marco Grazzini, Conrad Coates | Written and Directed by Andrew Niccol

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Writer-director Andrew Niccol has made a career out of depicting tech-enhanced dystopias, whether it’s his 1997 debut Gattaca (genetic engineering), his script for The Truman Show (reality TV taken to extremes) or 2002′s S1m0ne, which now seems weirdly prescient in its anxiety over digitally augmented reality. His latest film, sci-fi murder mystery Anon, finds Niccol on familiar ground when it comes to tech-based paranoia, but the plot falls short in comparison to the imaginative world building.

Set in an all-too-believable future, the film stars Clive Owen as world-weary detective Sal Frieland, whose job has been rendered ridiculously easy because all crimes are almost instantly solvable, thanks to an implant called the eye that uploads every citizen’s movement to the Ether (basically a storage cloud) and effectively puts the internet in everyone’s head, instantly bringing up information on whatever you look at, whether it’s a person or a building.

While on the trail of a serial killer who’s able to hack into the victim’s point-of-view (so they don’t see the killer, only themselves through his eyes), Sal becomes obsessed with a mystery woman (Amanda Seyfried) who works as an off-the-grid hacker, removing incriminating evidence from the Ether for a high price. He goes undercover to catch her, but finds himself targeted by the killer, who hacks into his eyeballs and manipulates both his perception and his memories.

With its tech-heavy set-up, Anon could easily be an episode of Black Mirror, and it performs a similar function in the way it uses an imagined future to reflect our own digitally-obsessed society. To that end, it’s a timely comment on the issue of privacy and there are a number of chilling touches, such as a shot of everyone on a tube carriage staring blankly at nothing, because their phones are now effectively in their heads, rather than their hands.

Even on his less successful films like 2011′s In Time, Niccol’s world building is never less than fascinating and so it proves here. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the functionality of the eye and the film is packed with clever details, such as the way that the eye has rendered traditional billboard / hoarding advertising obsolete, so all spaces are now blank, since the eye projects individually tailored ads onto the space for each user.

On a similar note, the film’s most successful scenes are those that involve the killer’s chilling manipulation of Sal’s perception and memories, whether it’s making him shoot at innocent bystanders, nearly get hit by an oncoming train or forcing him to relive a painful memory from his past. Those aspects of the thriller work really well – it’s just a shame that Niccol didn’t put the same amount of thought into the serial killer plot, which ends up feeling both generic and disappointing. Indeed, the film never really gets to grip with its own issues regarding privacy and technology and it’s hard not to wish Niccol had opted for a more overtly political thriller instead.

It’s also fair to point out that the film has at least two gaping plotholes, first, that if the eye tech is hackable, that should automatically render the entire system unfit for purpose, and second, Sal going undercover seems jarringly implausible given the way the tech is used throughout the film.

As for the performances, Owen is fine when it comes to the driven cop stuff, but he struggles to convince in the more emotional scenes and there’s a lack of chemistry between the two leads as a result. Similarly, Seyfried does her best with a frustratingly underwritten part, but she’s hampered by a script that doesn’t really know what to do with her once it’s peeled away the mystery.

On balance, Anon is worth seeing for Niccol’s imaginative world building, the film’s implicit commentary on today’s tech-obsessed society and the chillingly effective hacking scenes – it’s just a shame that the accompanying murder mystery is so forgettable.

*** 3/5

Anon is in UK cinemas and available to stream on Sky Cinema now. Note: The film is only available on Netflix in the US, not the UK.

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