Antitrust (12)

QUESTION: what happens to promising British film directors who have a big hit with their first movie?

Answer: they get swallowed up by Hollywood which gives them an OTT lump of leaden nonsense like Antitrust.

The victim of this seductive tongue is Peter Howitt, the former TV actor and star of Bread who, with Sliding Doors, made a remarkable – and extremely popular – entry into the commercial movie mainstream.

With Antitrust, a tale of computer villains and the bright-eyed kids they employ, Howitt has forsaken his English roots and jumped lock, stock and barrel into an atypical American subject, replete with B-list starry cast, (Tim Robbins, Ryan Phillippe, Claire Forlani) and glossy edgings.

It’s a mistake, as Howitt’s handling of the film shows. This is the kind of dross American directors toss off in their lunch hour; in Howitt’s hands, it becomes heavy-handed and bland.

Antitrust chronicles the adventures of a young computer genius, Milo, (Phillippe, last seen to fine effect in The Way of the Gun), whose promise and keen brain is spotted by Gary Winston, a computer mogul closely modelled on Bill Gates.

Winston is an almost Messianic figure to his adoring workers, many of them little more than kids being well paid for their geekiness, but he is rapidly revealed as volatile and unbalanced.

His company NURV – Never Underestimate Radical Vision – actually fronts a multi-billion dollar business that is under threat and under surveillance from the Government. A darker question then presents itself: is he capable of murder to protect his empire?

Antitrust begins promisingly, with Howitt, scriptwriter Howard Franklin and the cast steadily building an atmosphere of unease and paranoia as Milo starts to think his whole life is under observation.

The film, at times terribly creepy, is a blend of The Net, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Firm, The Skulls and Michael Crichton’s Coma in the way it points a finger at the Machiavellian machinations of the major conglomerates. Yet, more than anything, it is a modified version of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with Milo as a Winston Smith for the 21st century.

It also takes Enemy of the State a step further, revealing life to be a massive conspiracy in which events take a significantly sinister turn.

The performances are generally run-of-the-mill, though Phillippe scores as the nerdy hero who realises that much of his life has been a fantasy (shades of The Truman Show) and that people he once trusted are enemies, not friends.

Claire Forlani, the love interest from Meet Joe Black a few years back, slips in and out of the plot as Milo’s duplicitous lover, while Rachael Leigh Cook, last seen in the disastrous Blow Dry, is the intellectual colleague who catches his eye.

Robbins ambles through the proceedings with eyes propped open with matchsticks, smiling smugly at his young charges and occasionally raising his voice when called on to reveal his true character.

As menace goes, though, this is about an unnerving as a day out at McDonalds’s. And if Howitt expects his career to fly on the back of this, he is sadly mistaken.

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