Among the more interesting new movies Netflix has on offer now is Anon, a dystopian thriller made by Andrew Niccol, one of the first-rate sci-fi writers in America. Niccol became famous for writing and directing the cult hit Gattaca (1997) and then writing and producing the incredibly popular Truman Show (1998). He’s more than a screenwriter—he’s almost a poet-prophet, dedicating his career to warning America about the inevitable consequences of our love of technology.
Those two movies were the best dystopian stories of the 90s, juxtaposing humanism with the problem of technological surveillance starting from genes and continuing all the way to our everyday actions. Twenty years ago, those stories showed Niccol to be a man who would be able to talk intelligently about the threat of incoming digital technology; in Anon, he does this well.
In this sci-fi thriller, Clive Owen plays a detective chasing a woman who is both a hacker and a serial killer. While he risks his life to lure her, it’s his moral convictions that are destroyed instead. He thinks murder is wrong, but the authorities who control him do not—they are only angered or scared by attacks on order. In a technocracy, every man is replaceable, but the obedience that makes order possible is not. Welcome to the world of full surveillance.
What does the future look like? In Anon, it is clean without looking taken care of; it is urban in an abstract sense—not any city you’d recognize, because it has shed its history; it is cold and alienated, because it is the realization of our dear wish to replace fallible human factors with less-fallible machines. It is a world where modernism—from urban planning to architecture to interior decoration—shows hostility to human life, because being human is disorderly. This future space where recognizably human beings live is not a city, but an exaggeration of the most obvious thing about cities—that they’re artificial. This is meant to induce a certain mood, both weariness and wariness, because nothing here that attracts the eye is really beautiful. It also is meant to show us just how alien we are in a world that is, nevertheless, of our own making. It is only among a select few that beauty and attraction persist. The police cars are 70s sports cars, with their slick, strong lines, and the policemen are always wearing suits—that’s where manly energy and formality have gone.
Whenever Clive Owen’s detective walks around, his augmented-reality physical implants allow him to see beyond what others choose to display—he knows who everyone is, and has access to their data. They are powerless to hide themselves from him, and he walks among them with the disinterest of a predator—in learning all their secrets, he has learned that he has nothing to fear from them, and that there is nothing of interest about them. Surveillance is not kinky—it finds humanity boring. Indeed, humanity is almost entirely without eroticism in this story.
Niccol also shows that the souls that live in such cities want to escape them—the city is overlaid with AR, which populates the artificial world with advertising. AR thus becomes an admission that these people don’t want to be here, wherever here is—they want to be taken somewhere else, where their desires might be satisfied, where happiness might find them.
Our detective, however, is immune to these temptations. He really believes in justice, and willingly enters into the plot to trap the killer, played by Amanda Seyfried. Her victims are hacked—eyes have become artificial in the future—and so they see themselves from the point of view of their killer as they are murdered.
Having given over our souls utterly to technology and augmented reality, we can no longer believe our own eyes. This does not make us radical skeptics like Descartes or like some Greek philosopher—it makes everyone, including the authorities, utterly conformist, because no one dares confront the radical deficiencies of technology.
Niccol then moves the story to the relationship between the detective and the killer. Parallel to the question of whether one should break the law in order to act justly, the question of the human need for love is raised, for the trap involves an illicit romance. This romance is the only “unsupervised” event in the movie, and it makes us consider whether it is love or technological surveillance that brings true knowledge of oneself and another.
The story, then, is not just thrilling; it’s also deeply human; our detective and killer find themselves in an existential crisis because of each other’s existence, for they alone know each other as they truly are, not through the technology and conformism of the world they inhabit. Niccol reminds us we pay a price for being human—the darkness that lies in wait in all of us as human beings: our capacity for evil.
Inasmuch as the plot forces us to rely on the same surveillance technologies as the authorities, we have to undergo the same fearful, painful confusion the detective experiences throughout the plot, to figure out whether it’s worth being human, and what we’d have to do to defend humanity from technological control. The twists in the plot lead to a final confrontation that we need to see so as not to stumble into what lies ahead of us. Only in the closing scenes, after a difficult, tense ascent, do we see human beings acting freely.
Niccol offers us a very sophisticated guide to thinking about the tension between anonymity and surveillance, between freedom from external action and freedom to act in the external world. We need to reflect on this in our times of technological confusion. This starts with his chosen title, Anon, a pun—it’s short for anonymous, the thing to be in a future of surveillance, but it’s also an old English word that means “soon.” Indeed, the inhuman future it portrays is almost upon us, as existentially terrifying as it seems politically necessary. Don’t we all want safety, to prevent and deter crime, and to punish injustice? Wouldn’t we be willing to sacrifice any secrecy for that public good? This question is not going to be long suspended as digital technology advances and we become ever more modern. The word “modern” itself comes from the Latin modo, an adverb that means anon, soon, just now. Soon-ness is the ability to have things right now, the future made manifest. That is the main attraction of the digital technology by which we endanger our humanity, and it is the task of poetry—of our movies—to warn us of this danger and show us where we are truly headed.
Anon is rated TV-MA—for mature audiences.