Antitrust

What if Bill Gates was a KILLER?
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2001
Director: 
Peter Howitt
Starring: 
Ryan Phillippe, Tim Robbins, Rachael Leigh Cook, Claire Forlani
The Setup: 
Hotshot programmer is recruited by Microsoft-like company that may use shady methods to stay ahead.
Discussion: 

I bought this one based on how fabulous Internet-based films usually turn out to be, especially given that, in addition to all the regular teen hysteria and ludicrous plotting, you can also add a sheen of instantly-outdated technology, which is always good for a laugh. For this, nothing can top the amazing Hackers, but this one promised to deliver some amusement as well, and had the distinction of being among the few titles reduced to $2.99 at the closeout DVD store, where everything else is $5.99. [And you notice that there's no Amazon ad on this page? That's because this is out of print and used copies start at $0.01] So... worst of the worst! Wooo—let’s crank it up!

So we begin with these credits that are supposed to look like computer code, over some crazy editing that introduces us to our main character, Ryan Phillippe as Milo, and our Bill Gates-esque software company owner, Tim Robbin as Gary Winston. Before the credits are even over we learn that Winston’s company, NURV, is facing litigation for various infractions. This really has nothing to do with the story that follows, but does explain the title and gives the film real-world resonance with the Microsoft antitrust hearings going on at that time.

Winston is coming up on the release date of Synapse, which will allow for “the transmission of any message, on any medium,” which includes phones, TVs, radios, PDAs, and for all we know, the Emergency Broadcast System. This movie is purposely [and ANNOYINGLY!] hedging its bets in the instant obsolescence sweepstakes by keeping its big technology purposely vague. You can send a message over any medium—what does that really mean? Does someone’s TV have an address? The movie has just created a vague technological advance and kept everything at the surface level to avoid any real questions. Anyway—the darn thing won’t work! Winston, who is supposedly as smart as Bill Gates, has set a huge worldwide release date for this thing on the speculation that he’ll find a way to figure it out by then. I don’t think the real Bill Gates would ever be dumb enough to do that.

Meanwhile, Milo has a Hackers-like contingent of computer buddies who just happen to be working on the same problem out of their garage. To them, Winston and NURV are evil, because they buy up the innovations of people like them, and put out an inferior product for more money that people are forced to use. It’s like, SO wrong. There are a bunch of nobodies, Claire Forlani as Milo’s girlfriend Alex, and Milo’s Asian best friend, Teddy. They are watching this webcast with Winston when Milo gets a call from Winston himself—it seems rather rude to me to make a call while you are expected to be answering questions, but you know software bigwigs. Teddy, who believes that software should be like, free, man, cannot believe Milo would even consider going to hear what Winston has to say. “They just wanna own everything!” To Teddy, the only acceptable position is to offer your software open source—free for everyone. What he thinks he will live on is left unclear, but that’s his position.

So Milo is brought to NURV, where we find that Winston’s private quarters contain Chiluly glass sculptures and digital paintings [digital BAD paintings] that change depending on the tastes of whoever enters the room. Winston shows Milo the huge array of satellites he has deployed around the world, the software they’re working on, and a line of electric guitars. Before long, Milo is seduced. He leaves his buddies to work at NURV, which I’m sure you’ll guess does not sit well with Teddy. Milo dumps him with a gentle “We’re both gonna do something great,” to which Teddy replies “I just thought we were gonna do it together.” Oh, and who should show up at the very last second but the Justice Department, trying to lure Milo to their side as a spy. Too little, too late, folks.

On the NURV campus are the typical movie software geeks, who are socially inept, yet loud, fun-loving, and as fashion-conscious as rock stars. Among them is the lovely Lisa, played by Rachel Leigh Cook, who is supposed to be brilliant and aloof. Winston leads the company in a pep event in which he screams at them for not solving his software problem, then leads them in a kind rabble-rousing rally. In the meantime, Milo is amazed that Winston stops by his cubicle personally to see how he is and how his work is coming. Winston is always munching Pringles, which is apparently a personal habit of Bill Gates’.

SPOILERS > > >
But as I’m sure you’ve guessed, all that software coding fame and glamour has a dark side. The first hints come when Winston comes by with some code for Milo to modify. Where did he get it? And is it somehow connected with the news report about the brutally murdered software programmer heard just afterward? There is then a scene in which Winston screams at his lawyers to “be creative” in their approach to getting around the Justice Department’s laws, and wonders why he is being persecuted, unable to see why anyone would have a problem with his business practices. Milo calls Teddy, but they find that they no longer have anything to talk about, since all they do is work, and they’re not allowed to talk about work. Soon after, Teddy is alone when he figures out the big hurdle that will allow their messaging system to work! But then… what’s that noise downstairs?

Meanwhile, Milo’s girlfriend Alex is experiencing raised eyebrows at the proximity of the sultry Lisa, and we learn that Milo has a deadly allergy to sesame seeds. Which I must admit is one of the more unusual maladies I’ve heard of in a movie, but there you are. For him, a sesame seed bun is the sandwich fixin’ of death.

Now Teddy may be a cool, long-haired skater Asian, but he’s still Asian, and as such he is marked for death. Soon thugs have entered his apartment, stolen a disc [how quaint!] with his software innovation, and beaten him to death, scrawling anti-Asian graffiti on the wall to make it look like one of those white supremacist anti-Asian killings you hear so much about. Umm-hmm, you know, THOSE ones. The next day Winston presents Milo with some new code, and says something that makes Milo realize that it’s Teddy’s code!

Milo realizes that he has to start doing some espionage, and finally convinces Alex to help, although she initially tells him that he is flat-out bonkers. So together, they make a home bomb! At first I was like ‘No way—are they making a BOMB!?’ and yes indeed—Milo and his girlfriend and making a homemade bomb. LOVE it. They plant it at NURV so Milo can gain access to the super-secret something or other. He gets into some building and finds that computer programmers all over the world are being watched, to the point where there is a camera on their hands recording their keystrokes. He also finds out some dish on Lisa that NURV holds on file in case she needs to be kept in line—she was molested by her father when she was 8, to the point where she needed 11 stitches. Um, EWW! There are certain details we DON’T need. He finds his own file, and finds his sesame seed allergy listed. And—get THIS! His girlfriend, Alex, used to be in jail, and was specifically hired way back whenever to be his girlfriend and steer him toward NURV! Even Richard Roundtree, the Justice Department guy who tried to recruit Milo at the beginning, is on NURV’s payroll? Is there ANY corner of the world free of their pernicious influence???

So Milo goes home and tells Alex that he’s not going to pursue any further action against NURV, which she dutifully reports back. He tries to confide in Lisa and get her on his side—WHY? I cannot say… because she’s cute?—but she remains aloof, causing Milo to blurt out “I know what he did to you!” Yeah, because women who are already against getting drawn into dangerous computer conspiracies can usually be won over by being reminded of their childhood rape. Anyway, Lisa ain’t havin’ it.

Milo decides that the thing he needs to do is finish the code that will allow Synapse to work, then use it to transmit NURV's dirty secrets to all media! He plants a suggestion with Alex that he can’t believe he wasn’t invited to Winston’s art party… and she reports it back and soon he is invited. Prior to this, Milo has found a bag of sesame seeds at the bottom of Alex’s art supplies, so when she makes him dinner, he’s suspicious that she’s trying to off him. He call her Rebecca—her real name—and when she responds, she knows she’s busted. When he goes to confide in her, turns out Lisa was a plant, too! Dang it all—WOMEN!

Anyway, so Milo goes to the party [none of this is making sense to me either, and I saw the movie], and breaks into Winston’s office. This is where the digital paintings come into play, as we see them change and know someone is coming. Anyway, suspense, suspense, and then Milo brings all the satellites online and transmits a video he specially edited [with accompanying text] that shows how NURV operates and Teddy being beaten to death, which NURV maintained special footage of. This video is apparently simultaneously broadcast on all television stations, radio stations, to everyone’s phone and PDA, etc. Ridiculous, right? Can you imagine this technology operating as Winston says it will? You’re sitting there watching The Real Housewives of Fayetteville and suddenly you’re interrupted when “Eating sushi with Sandra—OMG those SHOES!!!” pops up? And you can just imagine the spam. And where exactly is Milo getting the ADDRESSES for all these devices? Do people’s cable boxes even HAVE addresses? It all makes little sense—just go with it. Anyway, this broadcast appears on all the monitors at Winston’s big party, as screenwriting conventions dictate that it must, and he is publicly ruined. Milo then, as a last little kicker, transmits the complete code of the Synapse technology, because “Human knowledge belongs to the world.” The last thing we see is Milo being accepted back with his friends, where he will spend the rest of his days living penniless in his parents’ basement, wishing he had tried to make a little money off that software.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was, despite its general silliness, rather compelling. It’s always a little difficult to make computer programmers into a compelling bunch, not only because they’re often geeks, but because what they’re doing is so opaque to the majority of moviegoers. This movie does what most computer movies do—make the geeks into a bunch of slightly socially-awkward HOTTIES who apparently devote as much time to physical fitness and personal appearance as to generating code in dank cubicles and garages. But it improbably succeeds a little bit in keeping Milo’s situation on a relatable level—he is offered a dream job that may have a few slight moral implications, which creates a strain with his friends. His big boss is taking an unusual interest in him, which is great, but the guy might also be an unstable murderer and conspirator against American capitalism, not so great. By keeping the technology to a vague something that SOUNDS like it makes sense but keeping the details under wraps, the movie focuses itself on the personal thriller story, which turned out to be surprisingly involving.

Which is not to say that the whole thing isn’t a bunch of malarkey. The film takes pains to paint NURV as a Microsoft clone to achieve that frisson of exposing ripped-from-the-headlines secrets, but goes on to be so generally ludicrous that all the Microsoft-alikes just start to seem like what it is; a calculated attempt to generate real-world resonance. Robbins seems to be trying to go for that Bill Gates kind of eerily magnetic yet skin-crawlingly creepy vibe, but it never quite works. His performance just seems a little too calculated. Phillippe is as good as ever, which is to say better than one might expect but not necessarily that great. It’s kind of fun to see actresses of the moment in the 90s Claire Forlani and Rachel Leigh Cook again. Where did they go? Audiences never really warmed up to them and they were eventually eliminated in the Darwinin Hollywood system.

But ultimately it just lacks that X-factor or absolute silliness and outsize characters in a floridly outrageous plot that makes Hackers the undisputed king in this micro-genre. If you want to watch this, watch Hackers. Then, if you're desperate to watch something like it and are willing to take a serious drop in quality ludicrousness [but gain in relative genuine compellingness] rent this one.

Should you watch it: 

You could do worse, but there's very little reason to.

RELATED MOVIES:
HACKERS is far and away the zenith of the computer-nerd-centered movies, and is so outrageous and silly you must, MUST watch it.