Writer-director Andrew Niccol is one of SF-literate Hollywood filmmakers. If almost all his credits are squarely midlist, he still wins points for surfing the actual zeitgeist rather than lagging behind the curve … as if he spent more time reading New Scientist than assuming 1950s Philip K. Dick and 1970s Michael Crichton are the ne plus ultra of techiness. Niccol wrote The Truman Show, and wrote and directed Gattaca, S1m0ne and In Time, all of which look at contemporary social/tech trends rather than hark back to specific previous literary SF prophets (though In Time owes a debt to Harlan Ellison) and come up with cinema-exclusive means of telling stories (and exploring worlds). Outside of The Truman Show, directed by Peter Weir, none of his films have been big hits, but they all stick in the mind – by focusing on concepts, and clothing ideas in styles tailored to them, they have entered pop culture by the back door, gifting us with terms to describe day-after-tomorrow dystopias.
Anon, which is one of those Sky-produced simultaneous -cable/theatrical efforts, is Niccol’s take on privacy, surveillance and digitised memory. In a drably luxurious, concrete-heavy near future, everyone’s memory track is burned to a permanent record in ‘the ether’ – which cops can access when investigaing crimes and a new breed of hacker make an off-the-grid living altering for folks who don’t want to be caught out in indiscretions or white-collar scams. A run of dodgy types who’ve had misdeeds erased show up dead, shot by someone who pulls a high-tech Laura Mars gag by rendering them blind as they can only see what their murderer sees during their assassinations, and standard-issue divorced, bereaved, no-life-at-all peeper cop Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) draws the case … which sets him on the trail of a girl (Amanda Seyfried) who has disconnected herself so she isn’t surrounded by pop-up infobytes when POV shots show what hooked-up characters are seeing (no one gets a headache from this information surplus, though it’s one of the film’s slyer gags that there’s just too much on screen to digest). Sal poses as Sol, a stockbroker who wants to wipe a hooker encounter off his record, and the girl is reeled in – but the sting goes south, and there’s a stretch in which the cop is suspended and harassed, prodded into danger when he literally can’t believe his eyes (as an on-the-nose line of dialogue has it) and drives into a busy intersection or shoots at a nosy neighhbour and tormented by the erasure of all his records of his dead son.
Niccol is good at setting up the world – establishing that people have become reliant on this tech, and let their real memories atrophy – but takes a particularly glum view from the outset, presenting the whole story from the POV of depressed Sol and chilly Miss Anonymous (Seyfried’s trademark smile is absent), without showing us any folks who are having a good time using the instant access to breeze through life. Like Gattaca and In Time, it’s a very class-conscious future, but offers a soft dystopia – there’s huge wealth inequality (Sal sympathises with a maid who snaffles jewels from a rich meanie) but little chaos and carnage, and even the murders are precise as if a corpse were being added to a still-life. When going through Sol’s memory of evenings alone not doing anything – no one uses the tech to watch TV or play games – the Girl muses that it’s no wonder he hired a hooker, suggesting a deliberately muted emotional palette to go with the grey-and-blue look. Like a lot of regulation dystopias since Blade Runner – cf: Repo Men, Surrogates, Virtuosity – it hangs its vision on an ordinary cop drama, with one of the more transparent whodunits in recent memory as the film is so spare it can barely stretch to one suspect and even then dumps the reveal in the last act with a rant about motive that hardly explains anything worth connecting with (which might be the point, but is a dramatic bust). It also has one of the least convincing geezer-and-gidget romances in the movies, with rumpled oldie Owen and big-eyed sylph Seyfried going at it as if homaging the video oeuvre of Shannon Tweed but generating no heat whatsoever.
Still, its seriousness is sometimes pointed and pertinent. Privacy freaks will probably soon be quoting the Girl’s motto ‘it’s not that I’ve got something to hide it’s that I’ve got nothing I want to share with you’.