Letter From The Editor - Issue 64 - August 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2018

Anon

Ghosted

On limitless information and elusive truth, Amanda Seyfried's anonymized eyes, and Andrew Niccol's continued interrogation and anticipation of technological progress

Anon
Netflix
Director: Andrew Niccol
Screenplay: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Joe Pingue, Iddo Goldberg and Sonya Walger
Not rated / 1 hour, 40 minutes / 1.85:1
Available on Netflix
(out of four)

We have at our disposal the most robust and easily accessible repository of information in human history, and truth is harder to come by than ever. It only follows that, when everything is recorded live and every person is instantly (and constantly) identified, reality will remain elusive. Even a fully recorded crime, as Anon proffers, could be impossible to solve.

Like the paradox of information and truth, surveillance and security are theoretically natural bedfellows that tend to get in each other's way, one undermining the other. For a future in which everyone's point-of-view experiences are continuously recorded, their lives and identities feeding into an infinite neural network, the presumptive trade-off for the lack of anonymity and privacy is the near-assurance of safety and swift justice. That any crime will be recorded by default is enough to provide most with a certain peace of mind. Except: Those few who can circumvent such a system are at a rather disproportionate advantage. In the land of the permanently visible, the incognito man is king.

Or, as the case may be, the incognito woman - played by Amanda Seyfried - who hides in plain sight, gliding undetected through crowded city streets and subways and restaurants and bars. She has no name, she leaves no trail. Detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) notices her in passing one day, but can't locate her identity anywhere in the system. A glitch, perhaps; these things happen, even in a well-oiled apparatus like this. Except it's no coincidence that the sudden appearance of an officially nonexistent person coincides with a series of murders for whom no killer can be identified, the recordings either manipulated or erased, or both. As Sal deadpans with a sort of bemused confusion (laced with a hint of admiration): "We have an actual whodunit."

Whenever we get a futuristic tech thriller like this, there's an instant leap to describe it as a "cautionary tale," but I wouldn't put that label on Anon. It doesn't play like a technophobic warning, but simply takes its reality at face value. The film accepts the future-set rules of the game and crafts a rather traditional thriller around those rules. The social commentary is allowed to remain implicit.

Writer/director Andrew Niccol has always been preoccupied with science and technology, and the way they propel, rewire and reshape society - dating back to the increasingly credible genetic-engineering premise of his directorial debut Gattaca and, the following year, his prescient screenplay for The Truman Show. The Netflix-distributed (which is to say, Netflix-buried) Anon takes the concept of living in public view to a different extreme, but it's perhaps wise to read it just as much as a comment on our current data-mined, Google-tracked, digitally footprinted existence as a projection of one possible future variant of it. Which is not to say Niccol isn't apprehensive or even paranoid about where these things are taking us. Perhaps he is. But his work is more about earnestly using the technology as a function of, and within, his story - unsettling as that function may be - than lecturing or scaring an audience with the onerous possibilities of that technology. He interrogates his speculative futures by way of old-fashioned genre methods.

Consider that his previous film, 2014's Ethan Hawke-starrer Good Kill, similarly revolved around a technological phenomenon - it just happened to be one (the accelerated use of armed drones as weapons of war) that had already made its way into reality. It wasn't science-fiction, as most of Niccol's work is, but its attitude toward, and relationship with, the central technological component is similar to what he does with Anon.

Both films also hinge on a nebulous accountability for death - the void between action and consequence. Whereas Good Kill was about one soldier's agonizing detachment (and physical distance) from the seemingly unreal results of his slight yet lethal actions, Anon's acts of violence are witnessed only from the opposite side - its bloody results clear as day but without a culpable party in sight, despite an entire global grid designed precisely to identify one.

Those altered recordings are only the start of the distortions that seem to protect Seyfried's character - and/or whomever else may be involved, or may similarly be living as a digital ghost. Hallucinatory interference as a perpetual cloaking device. When Sal follows her into a transport station, he begins literally seeing things that aren't there - or not seeing things that are. An optical hack job that makes reality itself fundamentally illusory. Niccol's dialogue gets a bit too cute about all this. "I can't believe my eyes," Sal says at one point. It doesn't end there: "Sure you're not just seeing things?" "Anyone ever tell you that looks can be deceiving?" (The newly literal connotations of such figures of speech should have stopped at one - at most.)

The very ability - of anyone - to bypass this system or easily manipulate it is a red-alert for this world's criminal-justice system, and the government that supports it. But given all we've been told about the security and infallibility of the system, it becomes something of a cheat that the police's response plan involves wholesale camouflage of Sal's entire identity so that he can upload a manufactured one and entrap Seyfried's character. As a futuristic version of going undercover, it's interesting, and some of the technical details of how the ruse is created are pretty clever. But the ease with which he can hide all the personal information he's accrued over decades, and replace it with a whole new identity, leads to much bigger questions that the film isn't interested in addressing. If it's this easy for the police department to modify such a comprehensive and nearly foolproof database, surely those with similar (or greater) power and access would be using it to their advantage ad nauseam? (On a related note, this conflation and fungibility of persona - dual identities, false identities, manufactured identities - is another recurring fixation throughout Niccol's work.)

The reliance on first-person visual perspective gives the film's noir stylings an interesting quality, particularly when Owen and Seyfried share scenes together. She's a natural for this kind of pseudo-femme fatale, her eyes huge and mysterious, a penetrating gaze that Owen's despondent detective has to somehow try to read, or manipulate, or believe. Even when the two aren't looking into each other's (or anyone else's) eyes, the POV technique works nicely - its crisp matter-of-factness getting jolted into uncertainty whenever an alteration is made within Sal's line of sight. (Incidentally, it occurs to me that Anon's narrative conceit is really the only sensible way to do a found-footage movie.)

In his non-POV images, Niccol moves as far away from first-person as possible - oblique diagonals, high and low angles. At times the film plays like a less lurid, less psychological, minimalist take on DePalma. Movies set in the future are so often visually noisy, but Anon makes a deliberate point of its simplicity - from the brutalist interiors of the police headquarters to the lack of extraneous screens and advertisements that usually come with the sci-fi territory. Most important is the first-person visual interface - augmented reality permanently wired into your nervous system, an organic component of your field of vision - with its thin lines and white text, its pop-up screens with clean borders and intuitively blurred backgrounds. The film is shot in color, of course, but it might as well be black-and-white. Golden browns are about as colorful as it gets, otherwise resting on the shades of grey in which this genre always seems most comfortable.

You can contact Chris at cinebellamy@gmail.com.


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