Although set in the future, Anon feels like a product of the 80s and 90s. If you want the elevator pitch, it’s a detective thriller vaguely like Al Pacino’s comeback vehicle Sea Of Love, mixed with the high-tech intrigue of Kathryn Bigelow’s hugely underrated Strange Days.
Clive Owen – in another sci-fi role following his turn in the classic Children Of Men – plays a lonely, hard-drinking detective who works in a future New York of ubiquitous technology. The algorithms that govern the web have come home to roost, and are now in our heads; information and advertising is projected onto the environment – so no need for those energy-guzzling neon signs that are a staple of sci-fi movies – and everything we see and do is recorded and carefully filed away as vast troves of data.
Owen’s job is therefore akin to a fire fighter reduced to fetching cats from trees for a living. With all that recorded information, he simply sifts through it all to find the culprits he’s looking for. A middle-aged man is looking for his missing son; with a few swift glances through classified personal information, Owen establishes that the son threw himself from the top of an office block a few days earlier. A wealthy socialite turns up at the station one day, wanting to know whether a maid stole her priceless necklace from her hotel room.
A series of murders quickly provides Owen with a knottier case to solve. A hacker turned serial killer is breaking into people’s homes, shooting them, and exiting without a trace. More disturbingly, they’re able to replace the victim’s own viewpoint with the killer’s just before the point of death, which, in effect, means the deceased was looking through the sights of a revolver pointed at their own heads just before the trigger was pulled.
It’s a disquieting concept, even with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror TV series finding inspiration in similar, bleeding-edge ideas. Writer-director Andrew Niccol, who previously brought us the wonderful Gattaca, the flawed In Time and absorbing drone-thriller Good Kill, gives the Mind’s Eye tech his own cinematic spin, and even on a low budget, Anon is fascinating to look at. His bleached-grey world of anonymous concrete and overlaid billboard posters feels absolutely convincing; he also mines even passing scenes for their spooky effect. At first, we might wonder why the streets are so empty, or why passengers on a train sit motionlessly, staring into space. It’s because everything we already enjoy on the internet is being blasted directly into their eyes. Everyone’s absent – closed off in their own, private worlds.
The world building’s hard to fault – the thriller element is, unfortunately, less compelling. Amanda Seyfried plays the femme fatale, a woman with no identity who Owen tracks doggedly throughout the movie. She’s given little to do, and provides a rather wan, tentative performance. Worse, the things that happen in Anon are fairly predictable if you’ve seen enough 80s and 90s killer thrillers.
The good news is that Owen’s really engaging in what might have been a stock, crumpled detective hero role. He brings the hackneyed bits of the plot life, and Niccol creates a cool sense of unease as the killer’s hacking antics cause reality to shift between Owen’s feet. It’s this part of the film, in fact, that is the most intriguing; like a Videodrome for the era of iPhones and augmented reality, Anon starts asking what might happen if it were possible for someone to hack and delete our memories, or even what we see right in front of us. Our connection to the web opens up all kinds of possibilities; the danger, Niccol suggests, is that we also make ourselves vulnerable to attack.
These are the elements that are most fascinating in Anon, and it’s a pity that Niccol didn’t take us further down this particular rabbit hole. Instead, he pursues his tidy thriller angle, and the threads that once threatened to take us somewhere truly unfamiliar and scary lead us back to safety again. In those earlier, quiet moments, though, Niccol’s movie touches on something truly disturbing.
Anon is out in UK and Irish cinemas and on Sky Cinema from May 11.