Movie review: Anon

The loss of privacy had been a growing theme in futuristic fiction for a long time.  And while some works, like Orwell’s 1984 have the totalitarian government developing the means to control its citizens, many other works have the technology first, and the political and social changes later.  Anon falls and fails in the latter category.

In the world of Anon, people are equipped with implants that record everything they see, so that they can retrieve their memories later.  This technology ties into a social network, where files can be shared with others with a simple thought.  As it’s usually the case, with great convenience comes a price: people are transparent to the authorities.  They have all their personal data laid out, and all their files are available to the police.

The movie does great job in showing how the technology works.  It begins with the main protagonist, detective Sal Frieland (played by Clive Owen), walking down the street.  The camera switches to his point of view, and we see boxes popping up around the faces of all people he sees on the street, with basic information on the people.  A few scenes later, Sal displays footage of crimes to people he is interviewing.  This footage, comprising of points of view of different people, is readily available to him, and he can forward it to others at his discretion.

Then a series of unexplained murders happens.  Everything people see is stored in the cloud, so normally it’s simple for the police to see the murderer, through the victim’s eyes.  These victims, however, had their eyes hacked, and they see the point of view of the killer.  This renders them functionally blind, and also prevents the police from solving the crimes.  Sal has a real case on his hands.  (I’d like to point at a logical fallacy here: Sal is surprised that he has to do some real detective work, as if there wasn’t a way to dispatch of people from behind, when they perpetrators can’t be seen.)

He suspects a young woman, played by Amanda Seyfried, whom he saw on the street and found suspicious as her face didn’t register in this recognition software.  As the story progresses, he finds out that she can erase data at will, replace it, and even replace live streaming to people’s brains.  The rest of the movie is by the book: Sal has emotional baggage and a broken marriage.  Has a romantic encounter with the mysterious woman.  Gets almost killed, and in the final twist dispatches of the real killer and in the process saves the girl from the oppressive system they live under.

The movie itself is of relatively poor quality.  I must admit that Clive Owen is one of my favorite actors.  He displays the sense of a stoic and strongly determined duty, which carries him to the end.  He is usually the tragic hero, who gets the work done, but unlike Eric Bana, actually survives the ordeal.  Through movies like King Arthur, Children of Men, but also Shoot ‘Em Up, he’s almost typecast himself into that role.  As a result, I was very disappointed in a performance that I think was lazy and lukewarm, almost to the point of Bruce Willis in his last dozen or so movies.  Seyfried was a little better, being vulnerable on one hand, but also hiding a certain intensity in her desire to stay anonymous.

The setting didn’t do wonders for me, either.  While many reviews praise the “elegant” and “brutalistic” environment, I found it barebones and depressing.  The world of Anon is permanently overcast during the day, and for a city of its size, it is remarkably empty.  If anything, it looked to me like a slightly rebuilt set from another Netflix movie, Titan.  The lack of any distinct soundtrack only added to the feeling of desolation.

As a movie goes, Anon is unremarkable and not worth second watching.  The trailer is misleading, marketing the movie as an action sci-fi.  But that’s par for the course with Netflix (remember Cloverfield Paradox, which almost forgot to add any Cloverfield content?).  But what makes it really intriguing is the portrayal of the technology at the center of the story, and its implications.

On the other hand, the Anon technology is very detailed.  It is showcased to the viewer in terms of a virtual space, interface boxes and all kinds of menus and information pop-ups.  I can easily imagine people getting used to it and working with it on a regular basis.  It’s less of a computer or smartphone screen, and more augmented reality, which I believe may be the way of the future.  However, there are also certain nuances that the filmmakers dropped into the movie, which people may not realize is part of the technology if they don’t think about it too much.

Probably the best example of such details is placing a call.  The callers’ faces are shown to their partners.  However, with the camera in their eyes, selfie mode is not possible, and placing a call must be done in front of a mirror or another reflective surface.  This lets people still have their privacy: calls are not automatically connected; people must accept them at their convenience, possibly when they can see themselves.  This strikes me as more realistic than instant connections.

Another nice technological twist comes all the way at the end.  Sal is curious how the girl was able to obscure her own feed and information.  She said that she split it into segments lasting a fraction of second and randomly distributed it into other peoples’ consciousness.  This suggest a cloud storage where no information is ever deleted, and an elegant way to obscure such information.

Finally, there are the social changes that come with such a surveillance technology.  They range from very bored policemen who don’t have much to do, to domestic disputes where partners are required to share their footage as a matter of trust.  As is often the case in such movies, one of the leading motives is the desire of the elites to keep up the facade of security.  When it becomes known that there is a way to hack someone’s visual feed and kill with impunity, the police bosses are less interested in solving the crimes than in eliminating people who are capable of such a feat, to suppress the information from the masses.  Ultimately, though, this is futile not because the “heroic” cop stands against them, but because such hackers are the last people wishing to advertise this information.

For me, this movie strikes close to home.  We’re not yet at a stage where everything in our lives is recorded, but we already moved beyond the stage where only information we submit is available.  Facebook had already been replaced by Amazon and Google, with their always listening devices.  As far as I can tell, this information is not yet readily available to the police, but we may get there someday.  From there, it’s only a short series of technological steps to reach the world of Anon.

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