Home > Reviews > Quick movie review: Netflix’s ANON (spoilers)

Quick movie review: Netflix’s ANON (spoilers)

I recently re-upped my Netflix account, and I watched a movie last night that was interesting but frustrating. Anon (2018) is written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the writer/director of the classic Gattaca and the writer of The Truman Show. It’s a sci-fi noir detective movie set in a future with a ubiquitous information/surveillance environment, where everyone in linked into an augmented reality network with constant heads-up data about the people and things around them projected into their eyes, and where their own first-person visual records can be shared with others or accessed by law enforcement.

The early part of the movie is the most interesting, as the worldbuilding is deftly established through the work of Detective Sal Freiland (Clive Owen), who easily “solves” crime after crime just by watching the eyewitness records of their perpetrators and victims, until he comes upon the rarity of a murder whose perpetrator went unseen. In a brilliant twist, the killer hacked the victim’s eyes so he saw himself through his killer’s POV, and thus recorded no image of the killer’s face, as well as being too disoriented to defend himself.

Sal’s investigation connects to a mysterious woman (Amanda Seyfried) with no accessible ID, a ghost in the system who turns out to be a hacker called “Anon” who helps people erase their subjective records of their misdeeds, and whose clients are getting murdered one by one. Sal and the other cops think she’s the killer, but naturally not all is as it seems. There’s some cool Ghost in the Shell-style stuff as the hacker-killer stymies Sal’s pursuit, at one point trying to kill him by making him hallucinate a stationary subway car so that he almost steps into the path of an oncoming train.

Unfortunately, once my intrigue in the technological futurism wore off, I began to realize the film was a gross failure of futurism in other ways. The cast is overwhelmingly white, with people of color relegated exclusively to minor supporting roles or bit parts. It’s also overwhelmingly male, with Seyfried as the only major female character (literally credited as “The Girl”), aside from Sonya Walger in a small, incidental role as Sal’s ex-wife. Other female characters, and Seyfried to a large extent, are only there to be sex objects. Anon sleeps with Sal midway through the film for no evident reason other than that it’s expected that the grizzled male lead will get to sleep with the hot female lead young enough to be his daughter. Indeed, the plot establishes that she slept with all her murdered clients, though why she does so is unclear; it’s just an excuse to give the real killer a jealousy motive. (I was actually hoping Anon would turn out to be the killer, just to give her more agency in the story.) The film fails the Bechdel Test; the only interaction between two women is a lesbian sex scene where they’re both killed.

Anon‘s futurism is lacking in other ways too. This is a world where people take ubiquitous augmented reality and the ability to see through others’ eyes for granted, so it must be a generation or more in the future, yet the New York City skyline is no different than it is today (except for the parts filmed in Toronto), the cars are intelligent but not self-driving, and attitudes toward same-sex relationships are no different from today. The cars and fashions are vintage, and Sal chain-smokes like a ’40s noir lead. Now, blending retro style with a futuristic setting isn’t intrinsically objectionable; it worked for Max Headroom and Batman: The Animated Series. But embracing a noir style is one thing; perpetuating the gender and racial norms of an earlier era is another. The social regressiveness cancelled out the imaginative futurism and dragged me out of the story.

It’s also very easy to guess who the real killer is, due to there being only one credible suspect. Anon’s introduction is too coincidental, with Sal passing by her in the street in the first scene and noting her lack of ID; he never would’ve caught onto her otherwise, so that’s contrived. And there’s a part that seems to break the logic of the world in order to get Sal away from the cops after he’s been framed for a murder, with little explanation of how he avoided being tracked for so long.

The film tries to say something about the right to privacy in a world of universal information, and about the dangers of a world where people’s very senses can be hacked, but it’s ultimately too superficial. These ideas have been explored better in prose fiction by the likes of David Brin and Alastair Reynolds, and in works like Ghost in the Shell. And I’m sick of seeing science fiction premises damaged by the American feature film industry’s backwardness about gender and racial inclusion — this being one of the most extreme examples I’ve seen in a long time. There’s half of a good worldbuilding exercise in Anon, but this movie about a world where everything and everyone is seen is ultimately dragged down by its lack of vision and perspective about whose viewpoints are worth showing.

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