If you’re craving sci-fi movies with a fair amount of world-building but just a pinch of creativity, Netflix has you covered. From What Happened to Monday? (clones) to Shimmer Lake (reverse storytelling) to Spectral (ghost zombies) and everywhere in between, Netflix experiments with speculative films to somewhat moderate success. These are all inherently watchable 90+ minute films, where the world they’ve established and the pinch of inventiveness is just enough to keep you engaged instead of burying your face in your phone.
Enter Anon, which, interestingly enough, builds a world around having your smartphone essentially inside your head.
We open following Detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) as he walks to work. What seems like a normal morning stroll quickly sets the stage for the world Sal inhabits. Every person walking in the opposite direction has their identify pop up within Sal’s vision, every moving vehicle is identified. When Sal stops at a shopfront, he holds his wrist up in front of a window full of watches and immediately sees the image of one he likes placed on his wrist for him to inspect.
And then he passes her, a mysterious dark-haired woman with her head down, and an ERROR- UNKNOWN flashing above her head. He pauses, looks back, then continues on his way to work.
Thus the world is set, where your eye is actually an electronic device, recording everything you see, giving visual cues to what you are looking at. Use your eye to enter your PIN and unlock your door. Enter a room and immediately obtain information about the make and model of the lamp you’re seeing, turn it on without touching it. View the bar in the corner and have the contents of the bottles identified for you. It’s Google Glass on steroids, with your eye as the camera.
On the one hand, such a world, packed full of information, could be considered a playground. Pretty much anything you could ever want to know, simply there for you to think about. But on the other hand, you can see this world’s inhabitants weighed down by the information. The burden of what they carry, what they see, is overwhelming. They speak in monotones. They stare at empty space as they gain access to data. They dress in monochromatic black and white and gray, not wanting to stand out.
The world has shifted inside rather than outside, and it’s a sobering reflection of where we are all headed, where the eye replaces the phone in your hand.
What impressed me the most about Anon was how this world permeated everything. Buying a hot dog? Pay for it with your eye. Lie about the last time you had a drink? Get challenged to “share your record for the last ten minutes.”
In a world such as this, where everything is recorded, you would think being a detective would be fairly simple. And it appears to be so until Sal is called into a case where the victim appears to have had his eye hacked. That case is like another, and so the police are looking to track down a serial killer, one who appears to be a cipher, capable of remaining anonymous, existing within the “ether” of the data records.
From here the film shifts to a relatively standard police procedural. Sal goes undercover, but he first must clear his record by spending a good portion of his time in his undercover role, so that the eventual meeting with the assumed killer won’t be easily tipped off by a perusal of his recent activities. Sal meets Anon herself (Amanda Seyfried)–the same unknown woman from the street in the opening scene–and a transaction is performed to Sal’s requirements.
And then things turn into what one would expect from a standard movie. Boy meets Girl. Boy likes Girl. Girl likes Boy. Boy thinks Girl is a killer and doesn’t want to get killed. Boy has a secret, and we all know Girl is gonna find out. Escapades ensue.
Honestly, this is where things go off the rails and become disappointing. There is such potential here. The world-building is exquisite and painful, and so close to our future as to be both frightening and inviting at the same time. If you love information, then this movie opens up a fascinating world. If you’re already worried your private life is being tracked, this movie can scare the bejeezus out of you.
But then, with all that robust, verdant foundation, the story we get is … basic. It’s cliché. And, sadly, lowers what could have been a statement movie into just another watchable 90+ minutes Netflix Original.