'Anon': Film Review

A sci-fi murder mystery with more style than substance.

Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried star in this timely Netflix-bound cyberthriller from 'The Truman Show' and 'In Time' creator Andrew Niccol.

Clive Owen looks glum and bored for most of Anon, and many movie fans will empathize. Touching on timely themes like online surveillance and shady government data-mining, writer-director Andrew Niccol's latest dystopian sci-noir thriller takes place in a near-future North America where privacy has been erased by technology. The premise is smart, the ingredients classy and the overall look stylish. But Niccol’s paranoid anxieties about the totalitarian dangers of cyberspace feel oddly glib and dated, light on thrills or narrative logic.

New Zealand-born Niccol has built up a respectable catalog of techno-angst parables, including his darkly glossy feature debut, Gattaca, and his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Peter Weir’s classic reality TV satire The Truman Show. But his latest detour into the Twilight Zone is a minor effort marred by clumsy plotting, listless pacing and an overly tasteful minimalist aesthetic that borrows brazenly from his past work. Opening theatrically across much of Europe this week, Anon makes its U.S. debut on Netflix on May 4.

Mostly shot in Toronto with a side order of Manhattan, Anon is set in an unnamed metropolis where government cybersnooping is a universal form of social control. Every citizen is hardwired with vaguely explained high-tech gizmos that broadcast their full ID details at all times. A permanent first-person visual record is also collected and archived. For detectives like Sal Frieland (Owen), this vast information archive is instantly accessible across the Ether, an augmented-reality version of the internet that turns every citizen into a permanently open book, and thus keeps crime rates low.

But something is rotten in this digital Denmark. An off-the-grid mystery woman using the online alias Anon (Amanda Seyfried) has figured out a way to hack into the Ether, and she is charging big money to shady clients in return for wiping incriminating episodes from their visual record. In a macabre twist, it appears she then has sex with her clients before killing them. Her ingenious murder method, hacking the live visual feed of her victims and replacing it with hers, not only renders her prey helpless but also conveniently leaves no record of the killer’s face.

Frieland sets a trap for his hacker nemesis by going undercover with a fake identity as a banker with murky secrets to hide. She takes the bait but, inevitably, there are deeper layers at work in this mind-bending conspiracy plot. As the obligatory sexual chemistry sizzles between Owen and Seyfried, powerful phantom enemies start to pose a serious threat to cop and criminal alike.

Frustratingly, Anon has the makings of a superior future-shock suspense thriller, but Niccol drops the ball on too many fronts. His sinister surveillance society is so thinly delineated, it lacks any real sense of danger. His protagonists are slaves to absurd dramatic contrivance. His big twist concerning the killer’s identity is just plain silly.

Haunted by family tragedy and an estranged ex-wife, Owen’s brooding boozy-loner detective is a lazy bundle of stock thriller tropes. But the female characters in Anon fare worse, defined as they are by depressingly trite male-gaze fantasy. A recurring shot of Seyfried's naked breasts is just pointless titillation, as is an incidental sex scene involving two hot young lesbians in skimpy lingerie. Mildly salacious trash is a cinematic staple, of course, but at times it feels like Niccol is torn between either remaking Inception or going fully Basic Instinct. His track record is way smarter than this.

In visual terms, Anon is all tastefully cool understatement. The boxy wireframe graphics that dance through the Ether have a slightly lame retro feel, but the reality-bending hallucinations beamed by hackers into Freiland’s brain to throw him off the scent are well-staged. Typically strong on production design, Niccol fully indulges his love affair with midcentury modernism here, paying direct homage to Gattaca with a handsome array of vintage cars, classic suits and lovingly shot brutalist architecture. Cinematographer Amir Mokri drains the color palette to an almost monochrome backwash of muted grays, blues and browns. The overall effect, much like the film itself, is elegant but flat.

Production company: K5 Film
Cast: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Sonya Walger, Mark O’Brien, Rachel Roberts
Director, screenwriter: Andrew Niccol
Producers: Andrew Niccol, Oliver Simon
Cinematographer: Amir Mokri
Editor: Alex Rodríguez
Music: Christophe Beck
100 minutes