If you have a digital footprint traceable through Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform, congratulations. You get to take comfort in knowing you’re doing your socially obligated duties to keep society in working order. Anyone who doesn’t is a social miscreant worthy of being immediately judged as a possible criminal. I can only imagine what half-baked concept got the ball rolling on the latest future dystopia imagined by filmmaker Andrew Niccol in Netflix’s Anon, but this false supposition of cultural antagonism just might be a close guess – the ultimate message may be the opposite of these sentiments, but that’s honestly beside the point.
In addition to failing, or just being behind the curve, as a one-to-one fearmongering metaphor about surveillance capabilities modern power structures have possessed for at least a decade, Anon’s commentary on our digital presence only works if you believe in a strict norm versus deviance binary. Particularly, that the normative behavior is our extensive engagement with the wider world through technological spaces and avenues, and that refusing to exist and engage with society through these spheres is worth social ostracization. But can you imagine any sect of reality that judges those who don’t wish to partake in these outlets? Could you even believably construct such a world?
Niccol may try, but his potential intellectual inspirations only get as far as you’re willing to humor them. If there were ever a more obvious attempt to cynically capitalize on the current vice grip Black Mirror holds over most contemporary science fiction, it would be this latest attempt from a writer-director trying too hard to relive the glory days of Gattaca. At the very least, Anon’s premise isn’t quite as ridiculous as In Time’s imagining a future where power hungry elites switch off an entire gene, though it does make the same mistake in believing Amanda Seyfried wearing a black-haired wig looks completely natural.
Interestingly, though, the particular implementation of Anon’s dystopian universe bears the promise of at least an innocuous diversion with the full plot in tow. Clive Owen plays a detective in a world where all memories are biologically accessible by every person through a Cloud-like space called the Ether, meaning there may be virtually no privacy, but crime is nonexistent. When a series of unexplainable murders questions the very technology holding society together, Owen’s Sal Frieland attempts to track down an anonymous woman (Seyfried) with no history or record and a vague connection to the killings.
Though there is a distinct formula keeping this synopsis afloat, it could just as easily forsake convention with a proper focus on character. There’s enough at play visually to keep proceedings interesting, as well. Production and costume design emphases on drab whites, grays and blacks demonstrate the routine boredom felt particularly by Frieland as a detective, where anything is accessible and no mystery lurks around each once-treacherous corner. And despite the often-distracting shifts from one aspect ratio to another, Amir Mokri’s cinematography complements the harsh lines in each set that defines this world’s structural and moral rigidity, all while occasionally disorienting the viewer whenever the lens enters a protagonist’s POV.
It feels strange calling the film sleek when its color palette is reserved to the point of virtual stoicism, but there’s even greater discomfort in suggesting there might be any substance beyond the pale exterior. Niccol may have sole authorship over the production as its writer-director, but you’d be hard-pressed in finding any indicators of passion toward the story he’s telling. Confusingly, the sociological commentary isn’t a constant narrative thread, but rather a mere set-up; a means to an end for the sake of worldbuilding, which might have been passable if the characters weren’t so lazily drawn up. Not to mention any means of connecting us to them emotionally are so half-assed it feels like the narrative deliberately ignores them for the sake of passing off its covertly generic story as clever or pointed.
And in certain moments, Anon doesn’t seem to know how to craft a plot that’s even properly contrived, delaying or completely missing different beats that might keep us engaged. Instead, some scenes overstay their welcome either tirelessly elucidating unnecessary investigation details or fostering a forced romantic connection between Owen’s Frieland and Seyfried’s nameless Girl. Perhaps the actors realized the thinness of the character’s they were playing and accordingly straddled the line between professionalism and disinterest so as not to tip off Niccol to their minimal effort, as watching them inhabit this world is as exhilarating as analyzing which particular sets use which hue of grey.
Or perhaps they knew what they could get away with given Niccol’s heavily apparent languid direction. Rarely before has a director communicated such apathy with their own project, yet Niccol goes through the motions as if he’s on the brink of sleep deprivation, lingering on scenes and shots when he could gather momentum with the story he has. Throughout the film’s surprisingly few set-pieces given its genre, not once can he be bothered to generate intrigue or suspense, or even offer tidbits of philosophical contemplation during its quieter stretches. What he can provide, however, is a whole lot of nothing tempting anyone to reach for the liquor cabinet so as to expedite the path towards sleep, relieved of the film’s bony clutches.
Sure, poor storytelling, characters and performances can go a long way in creating the appearance of an indifferent director, but one has to expect the one in charge will demonstrate some measure of control over their own project. Simply put, Niccol is not in a position where an inability to take command is possible, unless he were merely looking for a reason to get out of the house. If you’re stuck feeling disinterested enough to consider this an acceptable option for a cozy night in with Netflix, maybe you ought to contemplate doing the same.