In my darkest moments I imagine a future when movies aren’t made, they’re tabulated. Story elements inputed into a known algorithm. Want a story about a seemingly helpless youth and a damaged therapist who fight the apparent conspiracy that surrounds them? Simply input these variables and a few minutes later, your screenplay spits out. The scariest part of this would be that the movie wouldn’t be “bad”. In all technical senses it would be a well-crafted script. But, it would be lifeless. When watching Jorge Dorado’s feature debut, Anna, I could not shake the feeling that future of mechanical storytelling is upon us. Anna may well prove to be our Skynet.
To best explain how Anna is both technically well-made and a real mess to watch let’s describe the first ten minutes or so. A crime is happening. A young woman is about to take a shower when she hears a noise, as they are apt to do. As she investigates our protagonist, John(Mark Strong) is seen sulking in the shadow of the atmospheric room. It is revealed quickly, though, he is not actually there. In an “Inception” type plot reveal, we learn that he is an investigator with the ability to view and analyze people’s memories. This memory goes badly quickly, though, when his own memory of his wife’s death derails the investigatory memory. We then flash to him later, being given a cakewalk assignment to get him back on his feet by his boss/captain, Sebastian(Brian Cox). That assignment is Anna(Taissa Farmiga).
So there we have it, character set up, backstory in place, and the general high concept plot explained. All technical musts in a script like this. The problem is how procedural, mechanical, and humanness it all seems. Nothing is shown, everything is said. And when it’s said it is said with maximum amount of clunkiness and on-the-nose exposition. That makes Anna an uncomfortably odd thing to watch. The audience doesn’t engage, doesn’t feel any connection, but upon reflection has no real idea why. All the pieces are there in the logical order, why isn’t it working?
Even the actors seem confused. Mark Strong, Brian Cox, and Taissa Farmiga are doing there best to support this material with emotion. But behind every scene, one can see the panic behind their eyes. The panic of realization that this script is missing something. Ultimately that “something” is humanity. Anna is a story that is linked together, each scene leading to its logical conclusion. But all connection to life, to anything that a human viewer could latch onto is stunningly missing.
For instance, the connection of the loss of John’s wife is there as a plot point to explain his weakness. It is never used as a connective point between Anna and himself and the problematic haziness of memory. Anna is all plot and no theme or humanity. Even the twist seems far too lifeless and procedural to connect on any level beyond basic story formula. It happens because it makes sense according to the scenes leading up to it. It has no weight behind it. Anna ends up feeling like an imitation of a movie instead of an actual film. It is the cinematic equivalent of those creepy human shaped robots trying desperately to sing.
So, while Anna is not bad filmmaking per se, it is also a strangely empty attempt at storytelling. From the solid cast to the direction and cinematography, Anna looks and preemptively feels like a well made film. But for some reason, it just keeps feeling “off”. The movie watching equivalent of “stranger danger”. The Uncanny Valley is a term that is usually reserved for artificial life, when something looks similar enough to human but different enough to alarm us. Anna, though, somehow finds a way to blaze the trail into the narrative equivalent. So sit right down in the valley of uncanny, eat some artificial popcorn flavored bites, drink some sweetened liquid, and watch a movie that will tingle your “what is happening?” sense.