Antitrust (Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 2001); Director: Peter Howitt. Screenwriter: Howard Franklin. 108 mins.; rated PG-13

Reviewed by Kali Tal. All rights reserved.

Almost nobody liked Antitrust, a paranoid techno-thriller that was roundly dismissed as “bad,” “clumsy,” “predictable,” and “cliché.” The warmest comments it garnered from reviewers were in the New York Times, which damned it with faint praise, calling it “reasonably smart and moderately entertaining.” Only the geeks and nerds seemed to have any affection for it, probably because only they got all the jokes.

The plot is simple and far too predictable. Brilliant boy programmer Milo (Ryan Phillipe) is seduced away from starting a business with his college buddies Phil (Ned Bellamy) and Teddy (Yee Jee Tso) by smooth-talking billionaire computer technology empire builder Gary Winston (Tim Robbins). Winston is certainly meant to remind us of Bill Gates, which he does with a vengeance, even down to the flip certainty that there is no one greater than Gary Winston.. (“Bill who?” Winston quips, when Milo mentions his name.) When Winston offers Milo a job, he abandons his friends for the promise of fame, fortune, power, and bigger toys. He is accompanied in his move by Alice (Claire Forlani), his blonde, pretty, artistic girlfriend, who seems to love his newly acquired prestige and his large salary.

In the moral world of the movies, this sort of acquisitiveness can hardly lead to any good end, and Milo finds that his shiny new world is not all that it seems. In fact, nothing is as it seems – not his girlfriend, not Lisa (Rachel Leigh Cook), the dark-haired, pretty, intellectual programmer he befriends, and certainly not his idol, Gary Winston. The title, Antitrust, is well chosen, since the film is simultaneously about a corporate antitrust action gone over-the-edge, and about the danger of trusting anyone in the era of complete surveillance.

Tim Robbins lights up the screen as the childish, brilliant, and unethical Winston, whose philosophy is robust but hardly complex: “The software business is binary. You’re either a one or a zero.” Winston is clearly bent on staying a one, no matter what it takes. Initially awestruck by Winston, Milo adopts Winston’s values until he begins to wonder if there might be more to life than winning or losing. The women, light and dark, represent the usual choices such coloration indicates, and are the least well-developed characters in the cast.

Richard Roundtree has a supporting role as Lyle Barton, a cop who introduces himself to Milo by asking him to spy on Winston. Barton becomes more involved when Milo contacts him to express his concern about possibly illegal events associated with Winston’s “campus” NURV (Never Underestimate Radical Vision). It’s an uninspired and eventually disappointing role for the Blaxploitation star. Yee Jee Tso’s Teddy, however, is charming and believable and, along with Robbins, they provide the only truly engaging performances of the film.

Unmentioned in any other review is the role that race and racial prejudice play in the film. The “bad guys” include a trio of skinhead thugs who spray paint slogans like “Die Chink!” on walls. They are the very antithesis of “high tech,” and the plot twist that brings them to the viewer’s attention is surprising indeed. This film is unmistakably about power relations in a technologically advanced society, and it shows us what strange bedfellows necessity can make. Politically, this is exactly the sort of film one would expect Tim Robbins to endorse, and we could only wish that its entertainment and interest value matched its potent message.

Directing, script and effects are completely uninspired except for a single special effect — the “Digital Canvas” which senses the identity of people who enter the room in which it is displayed. The Digital Canvas can be programmed to react to the entry of a person by displaying the images they most admire. This effect is used with great success in some tense encounters between Milo and Gary Winston

Less than a month after its opening Antitrust hit the second-run theaters. If you’re a Tim Robbins, or a techno-thriller fan, go see it there. Or wait until the video comes out. This is by no means a must-see film, but it should satisfy those with a low-threshold of entertainment and time to kill.

© Kali Tal 2001