Friday, November 13, 2015

Review: Antitrust (2001)

Antitrust (2001)

Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief language

Score: 3 out of 5

Follow me, if you will, back in time to the tail end of the '90s and the dawn of the '00s. Specifically, we're heading into the tech industry of the era, back when Microsoft was the great, unstoppable titan of the computer world rather than playing an insurmountable game of catch-up with Apple, Google, and Facebook. Tech geeks proclaimed Microsoft (or rather, Micro$oft) to be the devil, the company was facing legal action over alleged monopolistic practices, everybody made jokes about the reliability of the Windows operating system, and yet everybody's home and business computers ran their software. What were they gonna do, buy a Mac? Ha! With hindsight, of course, we know that Microsoft spectacularly failed to adapt to the smartphone/tablet revolution, and that Apple, the perennial also-ran of '90s computing, eventually got its shit together and led that revolution -- and in the process, ironically turned itself into the bête noire of computer enthusiasts the world over.

But still, it's fun to claim that, when you translate "Bill Gates III" into ASCII code, you get "666". And today's film, Antitrust, is a great time capsule of that "dot-com" era of technological development, back when the internet was just starting to come into its own. It's a film that, to be honest, I admire more than I actually like, suffering from some wooden acting and very flawed pacing but which is at least somewhat redeemed by its message, earnestly supporting the "open source" software movement and warning of the then-nascent dangers of letting big business take over the internet. I can only really recommend this film to tech geeks, as those looking for a solid, taut thriller about the tech industry should look elsewhere, but those with an interest in the subject matter will find themselves pleasantly surprised.

The protagonist is Milo Hoffman (Ryan Phillippe), a Stanford grad and gifted programmer working for a tiny, four-man Silicon Valley startup called Skullbocks based out of his buddies' garage. One day, he's contacted by Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), the CEO of the major tech company NURV based out of Portland, Oregon, with a job offer. Despite the protests of his friends at Skullbocks who think Winston and NURV are evil incarnate, a monopolizing force bent on turning the entire computer industry into his personal fiefdom, Milo takes the offer and moves with his girlfriend Alice (Claire Forlani) to Portland to work at NURV's fancy corporate campus. Once he gets there, however, he starts to get suspicious of his new employers, particularly the fact that Winston refuses to tell him where all the code he's working on came from... and when Teddy Chin, one of Milo's old buddies at Skullbocks, is murdered under suspicious circumstances, Milo's paranoia begins to look quite justified. With more digging, he learns that NURV has been stealing code that it deems useful for its planned Synapse system, a "walled garden" network that will link computers and cell phones the world over -- and that it's also been murdering the independent programmers who worked on that code so that they won't get suspicious and sue them. What's more, NURV has moles and spies everywhere, from the media to law enforcement, covering up their crimes, and it seems like there's nowhere Milo can turn -- not even to his friends.

Say what you will about the quality of this film on its own merits, but it definitely has its heart in the right place. It was clear that the makers of this film cared about the subject matter, using the open-source Linux operating system and Gnome desktop UI for the computers in the film, scoring cameos by real-world programmers Miguel de Icaza and Scott McNealy, and taking pains to depict hacking and programming far more realistically than many films bother to do, especially films from that era. Despite not being a computer expert myself, I found that it lent authenticity to the proceedings, and made the scenes where the characters are working on computers feel a lot less laughable and more intense. Granted, the technology and aesthetics of computers have seriously progressed since then, but if what I remember from my computer classes in high school and college still holds true today, then lines of code never get old. The characters don't give ridiculous speeches about how hackers are the new outlaws, or about how the internet offers freedom from the "sheeple" in the normal world -- no, they feel like real tech industry types, and their debates on the merits of open source versus proprietary software are lifted directly from actual discussions that have been had on the subject. This is a film that could easily be remade today with only aesthetic changes -- just swap out Tim Robbins' Bill Gates parody with a figure based on Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg (and in the process, get rid of the Apple product placement that rings ironic in hindsight), and the message of this movie would still ring true today.

It's in the "being a movie" category that this film starts to stumble. The acting is easily the biggest weak link here, especially from the leads, with Ryan Phillippe and Claire Forlani both failing to pull through and deliver compelling performances. Phillippe is miscast as the nerdy Milo, occasionally getting some good scenes but all too often feeling just wooden instead of awkward like his character was written as. This was a role made for someone like Tobey Maguire (who made for a great, believably nerdy Peter Parker in the original Spider-Man films) or, had this film been made about five years later, Jesse Eisenberg (who played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), not a pretty-boy like Phillippe. Forlani was just as dull playing Alice, with her relationship with Milo and the twists involving the character failing to ring true for me due to her lifeless performance. Rachael Leigh Cook was better as Lisa, a fellow programmer at NURV (and competing love interest) who also starts to suspect something, but only by a matter of degrees, with her performance being merely passable. The strongest performances came from the supporting cast more than anything. Tim Robbins was great as Gary Winston, doing a spot-on impersonation of Bill Gates and feeling like a serious, ever-looming threat to the main characters, playing the man as less a mustache-twirling evil genius and more as somebody who genuinely cannot see what's wrong with his actions and the way he runs his business. He almost single-handedly redeems this film on the acting front, lending it a level of class and respectability that it desperately needed. Richard Roundtree, meanwhile, plays a federal agent who tries to recruit Milo as a mole for an investigation of Winston, and while he only gets a couple of scenes, he easily runs circles around Phillippe in both of them. I also liked the energy of the guys playing Milo's old Silicon Valley friends, and found myself wishing that they had more substantial roles in the film, as opposed to Milo's half-baked romance with Alice, which I found to be a distraction from the main plot.

Speaking of,the plot also runs into quite a few holes once you start to think about it. I can believe that Gary Winston, a shady figure who's made his fortune in technology (some of it stolen), would have a massive database with files on pretty much every programmer on the West Coast, from his employees to his potential competitors. However, his power and reach started to push my suspension of disbelief with the revelation that one particular character was a mole working for him. Given the background that had been set up for this character, the idea of him/her having been spying on Milo for so long simply strained credibility. Without spoiling anything, I would've preferred to see another particular character serve as the mole, as it would've made more logical sense. I also found the revelation that Lisa had been molested by her stepfather as a child to come straight out of nowhere, feeling more like a bad attempt to shock than anything. It existed mainly to give a sad, Lifetime movie backstory to one of the "good guys" in order to get us to care about her, and the way it was handled felt pretty tasteless. There were many other ways they could've gone with that subplot, especially since it added nothing to Lisa's character and barely came up again.

The Bottom Line:

This movie's more a curiosity for techies than anything, but if you count yourself in that category and can look past numerous flaws with story and acting, you can have a pretty good time watching this.

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