In new movie Anon, Gattaca director makes surveillance sexy

Andrew Niccol puts Clive Owen through his paces in this slow-burning sci-fi mystery.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Alan Markfield

Sitting down in a plush London hotel bar with Gattaca director Andrew Niccol to talk about his new movie, Anon, I found my phone's recorder app refusing to start recording. Which is ironic, because Anon is about the consequences of a surveillance society where everything and everyone is recorded.

In 1997, Niccol wrote and directed the sci-fi drama Gattaca. Tackling the subject of eugenics and genetic discrimination, the award-winning film quickly became a dystopian sci-fi classic. In later films S1m0ne, In Time and the excellent gritty drone drama Good Kill, Niccol continued to tackle the highs and lows of technology. He describes his relationship with tech as "dysfunctional" but insists that no technology is entirely good or bad. "It's really how we use it and/or abuse it," he says.

And indeed, the interesting thing about Anon is that Niccol's dystopian vision is wrapped in arguably a pretty sexy package. Citizens have brain-implanted "Mind's Eye" chips recording memories to be accessed by the police, but the people themselves can also replay favourite memories, Black Mirror-style. And the Mind's Eye system comes with a cool augmented reality interface that lets you walk down the street and see useful information laid over the real world: bios of the people you bump into, videos without screens, adverts that, when you hold up your hand, show what you'd look like wearing a new watch, and so on.

Instead of a grim dystopia, it's a smart representation of the seductiveness of even worrying technology. "If you go out in the street right now, everyone's looking at a device. All I've done is improve the device," smiles the softly spoken writer and director.

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Clive Owen is a rumpled cop in a society of pervasive surveillance. 

Alan Markfield

In Anon, Clive Owen plays a cop who uses the system to solve crimes by delving into recorded memories -- talk about open and shut cases. But in between getting drunk and playing back memories of his dead son, he comes across a series of murders in which the recordings give away no clues. Chasing down a seductive lead played by Amanda Seyfried, he finds himself unable to trust his own eyes.

This sultry drama is a slow-burning murder mystery with an interestingly timeless aesthetic. It's a noirish whodunit with a hard-bitten cop and a mysterious femme fatale, but instead of the teeming crowds of Blade Runner's futuristic world, Niccol presents a sparse, minimalist world that could be a hundred years in the future or a parallel version of the present. The pace is glacially slow at times, but the switch between the real world and the Mind's Eye augmented reality view seen through the characters' enhanced eyes keeps things interesting.  

Niccol uses some clever cinematic tricks to signal the different points of view. When we see the characters going about their shady business it's shot like a regular film with widescreen lenses. But when switching to the subjective, AR-enhanced view through a character's eyes, Niccol changed to a squarer 16:9 view shot with spherical lenses. It's a barely-perceptible use of cinematic language to give viewers a subconscious signal. 

Aside from the coldly seductive love story, things heat up in tense action set pieces as Owen's troubled cop finds his AR has been hacked. Chasing your quarry is tough if they change the number of steps you can see in a stairway, or trick you into seeing your apartment engulfed in flames.

Aside from the subtle use of cinematic language used to suggest these different views, Niccol credits Owen's acting for selling the changing states. "I had to talk him through his hallway being an inferno or seeing himself in his own memories," says Niccol. "I actually had to do some directing for once!"

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Niccol creates an austere world that could be horribly close to the present.

Alan Markfield

Anon is getting a day-and-date release, appearing in movie theatres at the same time that it's available online from Sky Cinema in the UK, on 11 May. It's also available on  Netflix  in the US. 

"In my movie there are no screens, theatrical or otherwise, so I felt it was oddly appropriate," says Niccol. But he plays down the tension between online distribution and theatrical release that's come to a head this week with the Cannes film festival banning Netflix productions from its lineup.

"For me it's always story," says Niccol when I ask if films work better on big screens. "If the story doesn't work on here," he says, gesturing to my phone's five-inch black screen, "then it didn't work in the theatre either."

He might be OK with online streaming and cogent of how tempting tech can be, but Niccol still hopes Anon will set people thinking. He tells me a story about a neighbour who works at Google and fell foul of targeted advertising. "I'm friends with a guy who's a big deal at Google," he says, " and he gives his daughter his phone to play with. When he gets the phone back he couldn't stop getting ads for My Little Pony. So he goes to Google headquarters, Can you please get rid of this? And they said no. We can't. The algorithm's too strong." 

The recent controversy over Facebook and Cambridge Analytica shows what happens when our data is misused, even when we don't have skeletons in our closet. "I think that the way we've given away our privacy so easily should give you pause," says Niccol. "Maybe we knew Facebook had our phone number, but did we necessarily know that it had the phone numbers of all of our contacts?"

Niccol himself doesn't use Facebook? "I would want a button to request fewer friends," he says ruefully.

And does he trust Mark Zuckerberg ? I go back to my recording and listen closely to Niccol's response to this question. He didn't answer. He just laughed.

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