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Antitrust (2001)

Roesmary's Bitrate

This never happens: A few weeks ago, my friend Bryan lent me an out-of-print, high-tech thriller called Antitrust (this is the same guy who re-introduced me to Hackers and turned me on to the masterworks of Shane Van Dyke, so I've come to value his suggestions). He told me who was in it and touched on the plot, describing it as a "fun, forgettable movie". It's so forgettable that, until I looked at the DVD cover, I completely forgot that I'd seen this movie in a theatre on opening weekend.

Antitrust came out ten years ago, but there was a giant hole in my memory where Ryan Phillipe's pouty, uber-nerd adventures should have been. Aside from infrequent bursts of déjà vu, I didn't remember anything about the story or performances, and it's easy to understand why this fled my brain in the first place.

Peter Howitt's film opens well. A group of California college kids are on the verge of locking in venture capital for their modest, garage-based tech firm. They dream of developing the best open-source code possible and making the world a better place--which puts them at philosophical odds with Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), a Bill Gates-type who many in the cyber-hippie community believe built his vast, for-profit empire on top of stolen, rights-free code. The first twenty minutes are like a teen-heart-throb version of The Social Network: lots of code-speak, arguments about ideals and money, and a mysterious Internet billionaire who uses his charms and power to seduce an eager, naive genius. Things turn south, though, when people start turning up dead.

Despite looking like a lame, middle-aged mama's boy, Winston is a ruthless, calculating monster who employs hit men to take care of the competition. His company's tendrils reach out all over America, placing spy cameras in the garages and bedrooms of every emerging tech genius his agents discover. A duo of goons blows up the images of these kids' computer screens in order to read and copy the code they're developing.

It's kind of a cool idea, but the fact that this is supposed to be an approximation of Bill Gates renders the premise laughable. Maybe because Antitrust came out when world-wide technological integration was still in its infancy (okay, maybe it was a toddler in 2001), writer Howard Franklin felt a David and Goliath story wouldn't be interesting enough without hot chicks and murder. But Robbins plays Winston as a creep from the get-go: even when he's being nice, there's a bizarre, kiddie-toucher vibe that telegraphs his mid-picture turn as a rage-filled lunatic. This leaves no room for surprise, character development, or a reason to remember the film.

Speaking of predictability, I've got a tip for any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: it's generally a good idea to surround your protagonist with at least one reliable character--even if your movie is called Antitrust. Following the mysterious death of his best friend, Teddy (Yee Jee Tso), Milo begins to uncover the extent to which Winston has manipulated his life-path. Milo's co-workers, girlfriend, and even the Department of Justice agent looking to hire him as a mole for an antitrust investigation are all in on the conspiracy. As the movie wears on, the ongoing revelations that absolutely everyone in his life is a traitor--save for the three geeks he grew up with--becomes laughable, especially because Milo is the last person to figure any of this out.

Despite all that, Antitrust is worth watching, if only for its time-capsule quality. It's weird to think of a movie from early 2001 as a period piece, but there's a plucky innocence here that reminded me of a time when popcorn movies about computers didn't have to be about terrorism; all of Winston's unconscionable actions are meant to protect his prize innovation, which is essentially YouTube. Antitrust also reminded me of that brief, golden era when Rachel Leigh Cook was in just about everything.

If you're looking for a sub-par War Games wannabe whose relevance was diminished the moment Steve Jobs unveiled the iPod, then Antitrust is the movie for you. For everyone else, stick with the better version of this picture, the one directed by David Fincher that I still remember seeing last year.

Trivia: Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke served as Antitrust's production designer. I'm not sure if that's at all relevant, but I had a "you're kidding" moment while watching the opening credits.

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