Monday, May 14, 2018

The abridged history of us


Andrew Niccol returns, and you will probably not be very surprised by what he's about or even how he's about it, in general—though if you're a geek, you might get a kick out of some of the specific ways he's about it.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol
With Clive Owen (Det. Sal Frieland), Colm Feore (Det. Charles Gattis), and Amanda Seyfried (The Girl)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Anon does something that, as far as I know, no film has ever done—though that is only if we're actually still willing to describe downloadable content like this a "film," especially when that's a designation Anon intentionally repudiates.  Now, Anon was never technically a "film" in the first place, at least not in that banally-tedious way some people sometimes use the term—as it was shot digitally—but since it would be incredibly hard to care about that in A.D. 2018, clearly this isn't what I mean.  Meanwhile, it was produced for Netflix, and this, too, carries no inherent value (even if the general crappiness of Netflix's "film" division is, unfortunately, somewhat suggestive).  However, it does mean that its director, Andrew Niccol, presumably knew what venue he was making his movie for.  And I would be tremendously interested in knowing what the hell it possibly could've looked like in theaters, so if anyone from the British Isles (where Anon has, this past weekend, received a theatrical release) happens to read this, let me know, because I'm almost totally certain that what it's doing wouldn't work anywhere but on a TV.  Basically, Anon is a movie that knows that cinema is dead, and also doesn't seem to care.

This object, then, is constructed through shifting aspect ratios, between 2.39:1—i.e., CinemaScope—and 1:78:1—i.e., ordinary widescreen, i.e., the aspect ratio of your flatscreen television.   By itself, this isn't new ground, either: directors indulging their IMAX fetish do it routinely for their home video releases; the effect is somewhat similar.  Still, it's never so completely deliberate, and you're always aware that you're seeing a kind of simulacrum of the theatrical experience they'd prefer you to have had, and hope you did have, when their letterboxed 'Scope aspect ratio bursts open for those IMAX spectacle scenes.  Anon, to put it bluntly but hopefully without making a judgment out of it, is not IMAX material.  But then, it isn't trying to be, and it's doing the opposite, or at least the inverse, of what, for example, The Dark Knight or TRON: Legacy are getting up to with their shifting frames.

So Niccol's picture takes as its subject a world in which everyone has had their eyes and ears wired to the Internet, and who are therefore constantly recording and uploading their experiences to the cloud; in return, they get an augmented reality interface in which everything in their field of vision becomes an open book, from the names and profiles of the people around them to how much a watch in a window costs.  (They can buy it just by thinking about it, too; but as this tale raises a legion of cybernetics questions it is not equipped to answer, it's not worth getting hung up on any particular example.)  Naturally, this technology has rendered crimefighting a trivial matter, and, as we see when we meet Det. Sal Frieland in the midst of an ordinary workday, catching crooks has become an affair so dreadfully boring that when he stumbles upon a murder he can't immediately solve by downloading the appropriate audiovisual files, Sal turns to a colleague with a bona fide smile on his face and says, "We actually have a whodunnit."  (I do think this is the first and last time our characteristically-taciturn star, Clive Owen, smiles at all in this movie.)  It soon becomes clear that their case fits into a pattern: every new victim is a client of a mysterious woman who flits through the world like a ghost with an error message over her head, and whose skills lie in the editing of records and the hacking of retinal and aural feeds.  She has done so for profit and, it seems, to strike back at a system that has abolished privacy; however, the fact that her clients all wind up dead, with bullet holes in their skulls and their last memories replaced with mocking, obfuscating videos of the shooter's POV, does tend to point to her as the one who must've, well, dunnit.

The film (there I go; so let's just call it a film) is, unsurprisingly, hugely bound up in that aforementioned POV video—from Sal, from the victims, and so on.   Whenever it moves from an objective, third-person shot to any shot from a character's eyes, it flips from 'Scope to HDTV widescreen, increasing the size of the actual image by around 70%, and it is extremely effective at equating this massive increase in visual information with the sheer intensity of its world's hopeless panopticon.  And the message it sends couldn't get even one pixel clearer than it does within Amir Mokri's ridiculously-sharp, bloodless cinematography and Philip Ivey and Christopher Argadon's remarkable solid-color production and costume design—solid color, anyway, if black, white, and bronze are "colors" as are typically understood.  And while that's all interesting in itself, what I'm fascinated with most of all is how it upends the way we're supposed to think of the two formats: 'Scope, of course, is much bigger in "real life," out at the multiplex, and the fact that it even comes out the opposite way on our HDTVs is just a result of a more-or-less arbitrary decision made in Japan fifty years ago.  In other words, Anon is a movie that is above everything concerned with how movies work the way they're usually seen, on TV; and I really do think that is something new and worth investigating.

Then again.

If I have spent some-hundred words talking about how thrilling it is that Andrew Niccol has directed a made-for-TV movie that interrogates the dimensions of the small(er) screen, and if I did that before I did anything else, other than synopsize the plot (which, itself, had to be done in order to explain the formalism)... then it is not entirely premature to suspect there's not too much else here to get excited about.

But before we talk about what's not-so-hot about it, it's worth reiterating that it is a beautiful movie, even by Niccol's standards, and Niccol once made a halfway-atmospheric feature out of a Stephenie Meyer novel.  It is, of course, the same atmosphere every time in his sci-fi, but it's always a pleasure to revisit Niccol's aesthetic, especially when it's as tremendously precise as it is here, with the 'Scope, "objective" scenes tending to further crush and immobilize the already-flattened characters beneath  the most Brutalist architecture Ivey could find, while Mokri, Ivey, and Argadon's soul-dead monochromatism and Christophe Beck's low-innovation but very-nice electronic score inheres to pretty much every single shot.  (Notably, something like 10% of Anon is devoted to Sal chainsmoking in the government offices from The Conformist, a movie I do not like but which does have one keen eye for fascist architecture.)  Hell, it's possibly worth watching Anon just to see what kind of retro-futurist cars Niccol has decided to put on his cold, empty streets of tomorrow this time around.

But still, it is Andrew Niccol speculative fiction, and this means the same thing it usually does: a single-axis dystopia upon which a murder plot turns, transparently to showcase the horror of whatever one thing he thinks is bad this time, while ignoring anything beyond the scope of his project if he possibly can.  (For starters: this is a world where everyone has cameras in their eyes and nobody ever thinks about putting a camera anywhere else, possibly because this would crack the plot in half.)  Somehow, in his first-at-bat masterpiece, Gattaca, he managed to hide his hectoring personality and lack of speculative rigor beneath a genuinely humane, even sublime, character-based narrative.  My guess is that it had a lot to do with Niccol having essentially just one fully-formed sci-fi story in him as a writer (or two: he scripted the even-better Truman Show, after all), along with the fact that Gattaca happened to star Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman at the top of their games, rather than Justin Timberlake at the bottom of his.

Or maybe those screenplays were simply more diligently worked-out in a way that Niccol never attempted again.  Certainly his next dystopian effort, In Time, was just plain sloppy-bad, and it shares with Anon its other star, Amanda Seyfried, who plays this film's anonymous femme fatale (if we must, and I'm afraid we do).  The reasons Seyfried has never had a serious career are made clearer here than usual, I find: while she's very lovely (but then, that's the sexist baseline for all movies), and more importantly has the right physical attributes to play a woman of mystery (those enormous but enigmatic eyes being expressly designed for this kind of role), she is at best only an adequate actor.  Nevertheless, she gets roles like this, that demand a rather good one, as only a good one could meet the challenges presented by a screenwriter this absurdly prone to overenunciation.

Anon, then, is just fucking obvious in almost every single way it could possibly be, and while in terms of its visuals that's an actual strength, it manifests more like shoutiness in terms of its already-pretty-obvious themes, and a sort of laziness when it comes to everything else, though it is especially notable the way Niccol pilfers from so many other, stronger narratives to construct his own—a little Minority Report here (a totalitarian whose personality hinges upon a dead son), a little Blade Runner there (the insultingly-predictable shape the leads' relationship shall take), and a whole lot of Ghost in the Shell, just everywhere (since half the movie is ghost-diving cyberbrains).  Sometimes the movie presents a weird social regression, presumably on purpose, though to what end I can't say, like when it shows us a dead lesbian who hired a hacker to keep her sapphic trysts a secret.  But its failures (besides a legitimately terrible ending, anyway) boil down ultimately to its weary dick and cool cybervixen, over- and underwritten all at once, whom neither Seyfried nor Owen seem to much believe in, and the best thing you can say about either is that Owen is better able to pull off an authoritarian gumshoe with this attitude than Seyfried can, with her lesser-seen but harder-to-lift mercenary/ideologue.  Meanwhile, they certainly don't pull anything off together.

Oddly literally!: this movie features a sex scene with Seyfried and Owen, wearing a bra and wifebeater respectively, and it's just egregiously unsexy, though this is perhaps partly due to the almost-unconcealed fact that we're first looking at a pair of body doubles who become, in an abrupt axial cut, the actors themselves—leading to a close-up of Owen that suggests the man may be the most unflappable ejaculator you'll ever get bred by.  (For everything else it does consistently well, Anon is a movie that bounds up and down the entire spectrum of filmmaking quality when it comes to Alex Rodriguez's editing.  The very worst is Pure Niccol, though: a cloying "static" effect that coincides with being hacked, when everything about the world Anon creates says that it ought to be a simple jump cut, which not only would've saved  the VFX team a few bucks, but would've looked cooler, too.)  Anyway, Anon involves a number of scenes of sex and nudity, and it's unavoidable enough, given the premise, that you mightn't begrudge it all those tits and asses—if only, that is, it didn't seem so fucking giggly and skittish and Skinemax about it, like it thought it was getting away with something in 2018 by having brief flashes of simulated POV sex in a movie, apparently unaware that its average viewer has seen unsimulated POV sex twice in the last twenty-four hours alone.

Eventually, despite a first hour that seems to take significant joy in the mechanics of a world where crime ought to be impossible, Anon even stops being an especially good sci-fi-inflected murder mystery; the only surprise it was ever capable of, considering its lack of red herrings, is inevitably the surprise it obligingly sacrifices to its grudge against the strawman world it's conjured up for our condemnation.  (There really aren't very many surveillance utopias, are there?)

Yet it is something of a return to form for Niccol's SF, anyway: it looks better than any movie he's made since Gattaca; it continues to work splendidly as a showcase of technique even when it starts to suck at everything else; and, narratively, it's never such a stupid slog as In Time or, God forbid, The Host.  You just wish it were better, because it's already halfway-good, and it seems like it wouldn't even have taken all that much effort for it to be actually good.

Score: 5/10

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