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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Anon movie review: brings a whole new meaning to ‘private eye’

Anon yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This sci-fi riff on the end of privacy is not as provocative as it would like to be, and its mystery completely falls apart in the end. But its visual worldbuilding is fascinating.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love Clive Owen; love some of what Andrew Niccol has done; big science fiction fan
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

In the not-too-distant future, privacy has been eliminated via neural implants that absolutely everyone has. Your “Mind’s Eye” records everything you see and hear and stores it in “the Ether” for you to revisit later or share with friends; the system also offers a kind of mega-augmented reality that layers pop-up IDs over everyone you see, as well as, naturally, advertising on many surfaces and shopping links for purchasable objects your eye falls upon. Oh, and the police can access anyone’s Ether recordings for investigative purposes.

There is no mention, in Anon, the latest film from writer-director Andrew Niccol (Good Kill, The Host), of such pesky notions as civil rights or legal warrants for Ether access. (The city it’s set in goes unnamed, but the film was shot in Toronto and New York, and the NYC skyline is prominent and distinctive.) There is a hint that the rise of a fundamentalist Christian government may be behind the universal deployment of this technology. These are but a few of the itches frustratingly left unscratched by this simultaneously intriguing and disappointing movie.

“You mean we finally get to be real cops and solve a crime the old-fashioned way, rather than just looking at the CCTV in everyone’s head? Cool!”

“You mean we finally get to be real cops and solve a crime the old-fashioned way, rather than just looking at the CCTV in everyone’s head? Cool!”

That said, the worldbuilding, particularly visually, is by far the most compelling aspect of Anon, which never quite clicks as the mystery it’s trying to be. For what cop Sal Frieland (Clive Owen: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Blood Ties) and his colleague (Colm Feore: Mean Dreams, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) stumble upon is a series of murders that cannot be solved in the usual way, by merely looking at the last few minutes of the victim’s Mind’s Eye recording. The killer has subverted the system, hacking the brains of the dead and erasing his or her own tracks. The killer is a ghost, and this isn’t supposed to be possible. Could the killer be someone like the woman (Amanda Seyfried: Gringo, The Last Word) that Sal passed on the street, whose blank pop-up registered simply as “Unknown Error.” Could she be the killer?

The tracking down of the perp is about as interesting as most movies that involve people pounding away furiously at computers, which is to say: not very. There’s even less dynamism here, where no one has to sit at a keyboard and stare at a screen: they just have to look at the display in their own eyes and use their brain to Google. And the mystery itself ultimately just falls apart; its resolution is hugely disappointing.

You thought ads following you around in your 2018 browser was annoying? Wait till they’re everywhere, like on your commute home.

You thought ads following you around in your 2018 browser was annoying? Wait till they’re everywhere, like on your commute home.

But how this world looks, with its noirish, faux-50s-retro-future vibe, and Niccol’s extrapolations of how a far more wired society than our own could operate? These are fascinating. The real world has become a muted canvas for the endless possibilities one’s own Mind’s Eye can layer atop it. Almost everyone dresses in gray or black; blank walls dominate, even at home, where there are no TVs, no collections of family photos — why would there be, when it’s all in your head, accessible anytime, anywhere? There are no phones! To talk to someone at a remove, you just look in a mirror and share your Mind’s Eye with them. Aspects of the mystery, the secrets of how all of this can be manipulated, speak to how readily we accept what is presented to us as real, how easily we can get sucked into unquestioning routine, how the virtual can seem more real than reality. There’s been lots of SF literature about a future Internet that’s literally all in our heads — I’m thinking of Geoff Ryman’s remarkable Air, and lots of stuff by Cory Doctorow — but it hasn’t been tackled onscreen like this before.

Anon isn’t as provocative as it would like to be. Niccol’s noir cosplay is often effective — Owen makes for a marvelously Bogart-esque rumpled anti-hero — but it gets him stuck down a rabbit-hole of deeply problematic treatment of women, who here are mostly either femme fatales or sexy corpses. (The “Unknown Error” woman is referred to by the cops, who are all male, as “The Girl.” Seyfried is 33 years old. She’s not a child.) It’s always disenchanting to be reminded, yet again, that the imaginations of so many men can extend wildly in so many directions, except the one in which women are people.

Anon is streaming on Netflix in the US.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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yellow light 3 stars

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watch at home

Anon (2018) | directed by Andrew Niccol
US/Can release: May 04 2018 (direct to Netflix)
UK/Ire release: May 11 2018

MPAA: rated TV-MA
BBFC: rated 15 (strong sex, nudity, violence, language, drug misuse)

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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