ANONYMOUS follows Alex (Callan McAuliffe) – a disenfranchised young man who seeks to help his parents save their home from the evil, money-hungry banks. Growing up as a poor immigrant in Canada with a lot of alone time, he teaches himself coding and becomes drawn to an anonymous hacking group that operates through a website known as “Dark Web”. He’s recruited and flown to New York City where he meets Sye (Daniel Eric Gold), a local street-hustler and con-artist, who shows him the ropes and helps him go about completing tasks that will ultimately result in the destabilization of the world stock market.
I feel bad for the filmmakers behind ANONYMOUS. I’m not sure when they started production, but they’ve had their thunder stolen completely and utterly by USA Network’s stellar television series, “Mr. Robot.” That’s not to say there’s not enough room for more hacker-centric techno-thrillers in the entertainment space – quite the opposite, I enjoy these sorts of stories – but “Mr. Robot” has explored the concept so completely and with such verve that it’s tough for anyone else to compete without really going that extra mile – or extra gigabyte, which might be a more appropriate expression here.
Don’t worry, ANONYMOUS isn’t packed with tech terms or jargon. Quite the opposite. It’s very friendly to those who don’t know the difference between a motherboard and a CPU and a cheese sandwich. In avoiding too much of the technical side, ANONYMOUS underestimates its audience, and fails to go after the target demographic’s jugular. I get that you don’t want to isolate technologically illiterate viewers, but are they really the people who’ll be interested in a story about hackers?
That’s why “Mr. Robot” works so well. While not entirely accurate in its depiction of hacker culture, it’s far more convincing because it has confidence in the knowledge of its audience. It doesn’t care if you’re lost – it’s up to you to catch up. It doesn’t treat you like a mouth-breather. That’s why it’s so hard to make modern techno-thrillers work – screenwriters have to walk a fine line of underestimating and overestimating how much the viewers know, which leads to characters talking about, or doing questionable things.
In one particularly egregious example, we find out that Alex – now embroiled in a world of hacking and corporate espionage – doesn’t know what a BitCoin is. Furthermore, he doesn’t know anything about onion routing. Come on, now! It’s clear that from a screenwriting standpoint, Alex lacks this knowledge so that Kira can deliver some explanatory dialogue for the less uninitiated in the audience. By writing the scene that way, you lose the confidence of knowledgeable viewers, and as a result the believability of the protagonist is shot.
The whole idea of Alex typing in a URL for a site called “Dark Web”, making an account and suddenly becoming a hired criminal goon is laughable. At one point later in the film, the website seems to become a matchmaking service of some kind, which is even sillier. The film wants to be taken seriously, but it’s tough because they didn’t get the basics right.
The overall tone of the film is a little awkward, with a happy-go-lucky score playing over scenes of Alex’s criminal activities. There’s also an unnecessary voiceover that makes you feel like you’re watching an episode of “The Wonder Years.” Also, I’m not sure the choice to edit some scenes temporally out-of-order added much to the story as a whole.
What is impressive about ANONYMOUS is the variety of international locations they managed to pack in on a small budget. It certainly opened up the scope and made it feel bigger than it really is. With that said, I can’t help wondering if the money could have been used more wisely on other aspects of production, but I’m sure the cast enjoyed being flown around the world.
The cast is packed with unknown names, and that’s where ANONYMOUS works best. There’s a decent chemistry between McAuliffe and Gold, and their friendship is the true heart of the story. While the film regrettably forgets this towards the end, ANONYMOUS is at its most watchable while they’re on screen together. There are no celebrity names with marquee value in sight. It’s surprising and refreshing to have a cast of unknowns carry a film like this and do it well. It won’t win Oscars, but there aren’t any bad performances here.
The worst thing about ANONYMOUS is that “Mr. Robot” exists. I know, it’s unfair to judge this indie film against something that is much bigger and more expensive, but it’s hard not to when they cover such similar themes. ANONYMOUS almost achieves what it wants to achieve with meager resources and a good cast, but would have been better if it hadn’t been hampered by a low-stakes script that was too scared to really go down the hacking rabbit hole.