Netflix’s new sci-fi movie Anon stars Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfriend, two famous faces that look good on a poster. The film was written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who has mined similar material with much greater impact in his script for The Truman Show and Gattaca. It all looks good on paper, but fails to live up to the talent involved. Which seems to be a trend with Netflix exclusives as a whole.
The setup for Anon sounds like a Black Mirror pitch: In the future, we all experience the world with overlaid text and graphics — an unexplained, invisible technology. You can learn someone’s name and job title by looking at their face. You can see the price of a watch by glancing at it, and even “enjoy” a preview of what it would look like on you. There doesn’t seem to be a way to turn any of this off.
This technology also records everything you see and hear, and you can share those memories with anyone you’d like. This makes solving crimes easy; all a detective has to do is scroll back through everyone’s memories to see exactly what happened. Even a baby can be a witness, if you have the right timestamp.
This situation makes the cops effective, but bored. “It looks like we’ve got an actual whodunnit,” our hero says when presented with the first mystery they police have seen in a long time. Murders are taking place where the only record is a visual of the crime itself, seen through the eyes of the victims. According to all the tracking devices this world has to offer, there is no one else in the room.
Isn’t it strange that this happened around the same time our hero sees a woman walking down the street without any metadata attached to her face?
These characters are lifted from older, better hard-boiled fiction. Clive Owen plays a detective who I have to assume is named “Grizzled Man,” and he drinks and grumbles through the movie. Amanda Seyfriend plays “Character Who Looks Good in a Dress,” and that’s the level of enthusiasm she brings to the role.
I’m only sort of joking. His name is “Sal Frieland,” because this is a noir and of course it is. She’s not given a name at all. Seyfried’s acting suggests that, yes, she knows how bad that wig is, but Niccol wouldn’t let her take it off.
Soon after meeting, the two characters have sex, because someone needed to scratch “get some nudity in there” off a checklist. There is one scene, disconnected from the sex itself, that consists of Seyfriend staring at the camera, in that horrible wig, topless.
The script does bring up some interesting ideas with the premise, but never follows through on any them. What does it mean to lose these video records if they’re the only things you have left from the people you love? How would these records of our point of view compare to our actual memories? Do these characters separate those two concepts at all? If external technology controls everything we see, what happens when someone can get in and mess with reality? How do relationships work in a world where you can erase your browsing history, but not the video of what you saw on your screen?
“I haven’t had a drink for days,” Frieland tells his ex-wife, after he gets drunk and calls her. Why even bother lying?
In one of Anon’s many neat ideas, these video calls are achieved by looking into a mirror.
In another clever scene, the detective is foiled during a chase because his compromised vision sees a flight a stairs as being slightly skewed. The rest of his nightmares are less interesting; making someone see fire or rats is pretty dull when you can erase the memories of their lost family members.
“I can’t believe my eyes,” Frieland says at one point. This is story that believes in showing and telling... and telling and telling and telling. It’s a shame so many fun ideas that could have led to all sorts of interesting stories are all treated as set dressing for such a boring murder mystery.
What’s frustrating is that all the bad decisions are evened out by what goes well. The set design handles futuristic-noir settings with style, and Niccol knows exactly where to put the camera and when to cut to a first-person perspective to keep us off balance. Owen is able to convey real panic when he realizes his own past is just data, and data can be stolen and destroyed. How these people were convinced the network that ties all this together would be secure forever stretches believability, but it works in the moment.
Anon isn’t worthless, which is probably good enough for a Netflix exclusive that doesn’t require the cost of a ticket or getting someone to watch your kids. But that low bar for success and lackluster nature of the overall story adds up to turn Anon into yet another forgettable Netflix movie that looks better on a poster than it does on the screen.