It’s difficult to make the act of hacking cinematic. Not just visually — endless shots of faces frowning at computer screens displaying gibberish code — but on a storytelling level as well. The work of a skilled hacker can lead to devastating effects, but the act itself is not particularly dramatic, except to other hackers who might find the details interesting, even instructive. If that’s the niche-y audience Kazakh director Akan Satayev is going for with “Anonymous” (which is not affiliated with the real-world collective that shares its name, though it doubtless would like you to think it is), it’s a miscalculation: Anyone who’s seen even a lesser episode of “Mr Robot” will likely have learned much more than what’s on offer here. And if this film were meant to entertain general audiences, then the question becomes: “Why so dull?”
Michael Mann’s “Blackhat,” for example, at least set its hacktion against a backdrop of international espionage with literally nuclear ramifications. By contrast, “Anonymous” plods through a low-stakes tale that’s almost frictionlessly insulated against real-world consequences. Here, rising star Callan McAuliffe (“I Am Number Four,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment”) plays Alex, the only child of an immigrant family which, in a couple of emblematic scenes of domestic strife and a lot of expository voice-over, is shown to face years of mortgage-related struggle. When his hardworking mother is fired from her job at a local bank Alex, who has been saving college money via his dubious but basically legal online job as a “clicker,” bails the family out, but finds himself in dire need of cash.
He signs up on “Dark Web,” an ill-defined mashup of a hacktivist collective and the, um, dark web. After a rather simple initiation that involves a phishing attack on a high-school bully — whose sickest burn is to call Ukrainian émigré Alex “Dostoevsky” at one point — Alex is instantly off fencing dubiously acquired electrical goods and jewelry. He’s not particularly good at it, but conveniently he happens to meet small-time grifter Sye (Daniel Eric Gold), who is. They go into shady business together, all thoughts of college forgotten, and become best friends. But trouble awaits in the form of Kira (Lorraine Nicholson, daughter of Jack), herself an expert hacker who joins the gang with a secret agenda of her own.
Somewhere along the way, we’re supposed to start to care about these three white-bread characters, but it’s hard to know when, as for the most part they seem to be motivated only by money, with occasional attacks of anti-establishment rhetoric punctuating their high-living ways, largely financed via epic credit-card fraud. (The predicament of Alex’s family offers him an initial reason for an anti-corporate stance, but he conveniently forgets about that for large swathes of the film.)
The trio’s globetrotting allows Satayev and DP Pasha Patriki, whose polished, anodyne visuals are the very definition of anonymous, to collect shots of their attractive young stars frowning at computer screens and playing dress-up in all sorts of different locales, from suburban Canada to Toronto to Bangkok to Hong Kong to New York. But the biggest locations budget in the world couldn’t compensate for the blandness of the writing and the rote, generic filmmaking. Ironically, although Satayev uses every filmic device in the book to over-explain the simplistic plot — faux-cynical voice-over, onscreen titles/texts, maddeningly obvious scoring cues — it often feels like “Anonymous” doesn’t actually want to be a film at all, it has so little sense of the real potential of the medium.
For no discernible reason (a clause that could modify almost every one of the film’s plot points) Alex’s endgame is to meet the “leader” of Dark Web. This is a nonsense invention, even before said leader turns out to be a wheelchair-bound burns-victim megalomaniac played by a mercifully unrecognizable Clifton Collins Jr. Like so much else in in the movie, the mere existence of this ridiculous character suggests that the filmmakers’ grasp on the arcane, many-headed hydra of internet criminality is tenuous at best and fatally passé at worst. “Anonymous” may be a film about modern, high-level, cutting-edge hacking, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that if it had a password it would be “password.”