Ghost in the Shell on a budget
The latest Sky Cinema Original movie, Anon, is a Clive Owen-starring high concept sci-fi mystery from the director of Gattaca.Working on a budget, Director Andrew Niccol - the man behind imaginative sci-fi fare like the excellent Gattaca and the enjoyably high concept In Time - has either settled for less than the best, or he has made something out of nothing with his latest film, Anon.
With just $20 million to play with, German backing, and a multi-platform delivery that sees Anon launched day and date in both cinemas and on smaller screens courtesy of the Sky Cinema Original Film line of features, a label which has been more of a curse than a blessing given their output so far (Monster House, Hurricane Heist).
Thankfully Sky may have just caught a break nabbing a film by Niccol, who generally errs on the side of making something out of nothing with his latest, which struggles to escape the limitations of some rather cheap effects, but still manages to trade in the filmmakers high concept sci-fi trademarks.
A grounded variation on Ghost in the Shell, infusing elements of both Minority Report and Strange Days
The story is somewhat like a low budget, grounded variation on Ghost in the Shell, infusing elements of both Minority Report and Strange Days, but also - despite these comparisons - remaining fairly original in delivery.
It throws us into a near-future where everybody and everything is tagged and recorded for optical playback, much like a recent episode of the dark TV series Black Mirror. Cops no longer have to work very hard to find their perps - they can tap into the visual memories and playback crimes, gliding through a prism of data that looks like a complex screen from Minority Report, and dipping in and out of time-coded files to get the truth.
Things get complicated when Clive Owen's cop starts investigating a spate of killings where the murderer has managed to tap into the real-time video-feed and loop back to their own video-feed, allowing his victims (Strange Days-style) to see their own deaths from the point of view of the killer.
A Ghost in the Shell-style hacker extraordinaire, the killer is not only able to commit these crimes anonymously, but also erase all trace, leaving the police at a loss as to how to catch them, attempting to set a trap which only leads to further complications as Owen gets close to hacker and prime suspect Amanda Seyfried.
Still riding high on the critical success of Gattaca over 20 years ago, Niccol hasn't enjoyed all that much commercial success in his career. Gattaca flopped on release, his next film, the Al Pacino-starring Simone was neither a critical or commercial success, and whilst 2005's Lord of War was one of the better post-2000 Nicolas Cage movies, it followed suit.
Indeed, it wasn't until 2011's In Time, a nifty little film that posited time - and thus your very lifespan - as a commodity which the rich enjoyed and the poor ran out of, that Niccol legitimately enjoyed a Box Office hit. Unfortunately the success was short-lived, with the Young Adult adaptation The Host marking the start of the end, and a return to lower budget fare in the watchable but unmemorable Good Kill.
Perhaps landing on the Sky Cinema Original Film platform was a good thing for Niccol, allowing him to secure decent enough names in the seemingly perpetually underrated Clive Owen and Niccol's former In Time collaborator Amanda Seyfried, who throw themselves into the innovative narrative with aplomb, hoping that a bevy of post-production effects will turn their confused looks and thousand yard stares into something suitably impressive.
The POV shots look like they're out of a '90s FPS
Unfortunately it's probably mostly here where they - and the film - are let down, struggling to escape some of the POV shots (which look like they're out of a '90s First Person Shooter video game) which threaten to drop the veil of suspended disbelief with a thud, and thus potentially pull you right out of the movie altogether.
Owen and Seyfried work around it as best they can, and Niccol engineers a few tense flourishes across his remarkably short, but not necessarily all that lean, 95 minute runtime, managing to gleefully play with reality, memories and 'the truth' as the mystery unravels, and more than happy to just get his cast naked if he doesn't have the budget for another set piece up his sleeve.
A suitably moody score by Christophe Beck (Edge of Tomorrow, Ant Man, American Made), a few clever tech ideas (the HUD readouts and seamless shifting aspect ratios from the 2.4:1 format to 1.85:1 for the POV shots) and two solid leads make this a watchable little thriller, infused with the suitably cold critique on future tech-driven dystopia that Niccol loves to explore.
It's hardly groundbreaking, and you can't help but feel that a little more refinement may have led to better-realised set-pieces all-around (the whole 'running blind' concept is vastly underdeveloped) but such refinement, no doubt through a bigger budget, would have likely resulted in an end product that was compromised in other ways, and at least this vision of Anon appears true to Niccol's intent.
It may not be able to compete with Annihilation, but it's a nice little new release for Sky to offer
As stated at the outset, you can either view this as settling for far less than the best, or making something out of nothing, but the mere fact that Anon rides such a grey area is a testament to it being a cut above all prior Sky Cinema Original Film offerings.
It may not be worth your time hunting this down at the cinemas, and it may not be able to compete with Netflix's big sci-fi coup in Annihilation, but it's still a nice little new release for Sky to offer you on your doorstep on the day of its release, providing a pleasantly dystopian bent to its otherwise procedural thrills.
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