Andrew Niccol has been warning us about the future for decades.
The writer and director of films like Gattaca and The Truman Show, his work has always touched on the social and cultural implications of the technology that surrounds us.
But where once eugenics and voyeurism were his primary concerns, Niccol’s latest movie Anon sees the filmmaker tackling an altogether different issue: privacy.
The timing couldn’t be better, given the unfolding saga involving Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and our private data. Anon presents a parallel world, where your every move is monitored and recorded via a special surveillance system built into every single person’s eyes.
It stars Clive Owen as Sal Friedland, a detective in the classic noir mould, who is able to access these random memories from the “Ether” network to piece together the crimes and culprits he faces every day.
Sal’s world is turned upside down, however, when a hacker dubbed The Girl (Amanda Seyfried) – enters his fray, while somehow remaining off the grid. Murder, betrayal and a stark realisation of the reality we all live in follows.
For Niccol, Anon isn’t a presentation of some far-flung dystopian version of reality though. “It’s a society with no privacy and no anonymity but that’s not a futuristic concept, that’s today,” he tells loaded.
“It’s about this war for privacy that didn’t happen. We gave up all our privacy for convenience and without a fight.” It’s an alarming thought. The Analytica debacle has already highlighted the amount of personal data Facebook users have already handed over.
But, as Niccol is keen to stress, that only represents the tip of the iceberg and the stark reality is that it’s too late to go back now. “You don’t have any idea how much information you are giving away. Right now, we’re all geo-tagging from our phones,” Niccol says.
“Every search you put into Google, you’re going to get an advert pop up for something relevant to it the next minute. There’s just no way to avoid it. There’s no way to opt out.” It’s this same concept that drew Clive Owen to the project.
“Andrew sent me the script and I thought, ‘that seems really cool,” he said. Owen has always been wary of social media, steering clear of Twitter and Facebook because, at least partly, he would rather live away from the limelight.
Even so, he willingly admits that being “off the grid” is almost impossible. “They are constantly watching us. Think about all that stuff that pops up on your phone about accessing where you are. There’s a thing called find my phone which proves they can track your phone wherever you are.”
Anon also presents a world where people are constantly browsing multiple panels of information implanted into their irises. The latest news, stocks and shares and biographies and data on everything in their peripheral vision.
For Niccol, the challenge was to pack every one of these shots with detailed information – pause a single frame containing this info and you’ll be presented with detailed biographies and character backgrounds that add a fascinating layer to the movie.
For Owen, the challenge was to create a character existing on a semi-detached plain of consciousness. Like trying to have a conversation with someone while they browse on their smartphone.
“The big challenge was creating that notion of being hardwired into the ether, where I can look at someone but also be accessing information about them at the same time.”
The film offers up a world where our very eyes are constantly recording everything we see. Again, Niccol stresses the parallels with our modern world.
“For me it’s quite ironic because in the movie people are life-vlogging and that’s what we do today with Instagram. We’re just constantly saying ‘look, here I am again. I’m going to record this.’ You’re compiling this huge amount of data for someone else,” he says.
The advent of social media has had another impact too, particularly for a filmmaker like Niccol, who has always looked to explore new ideas and fresh territory. That’s not a notion that sits well in the era of the social media bubble and that’s a problem.
“It’s making us narrower and narrower. It’s like with bookstores, for instance. You used to go to a bookstore and look for a book and the thing you got in return was all of the other books that you weren’t expecting to see,” Niccol warns.
“But now you just sit there, and you order it on Amazon and you go down this narrow path and you become this much narrower person. You send away for a book and a message pops up saying: ‘you might also like…’ and give you five other books.”
The pair aren’t done setting the technological world to rights yet either. Owen’s next film, Gemini Man, is based on a Niccol script and tackles another intriguing concern.
“It’s directed by Ang Lee, it’s starring Will Smith and it’s about cloning. It’s going to be a ground-breaking film,” Owen says.
“They are cloning, they can clone, so it’s a futuristic movie about something that’s just around the corner.”
Anon is in cinemas now.
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Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.