There’s something suspicious about a movie that might uses slogans as dialogue. This one lays out its competing democratic and capitalistic ideals by such shorthand. For example: “Never underestimate radical vision,” the motto of NURV, the Microsoft-like corporation at the center of Antitrust, headed by the Bill Gates-like Gary Winston (Tim Robbins). When Gary points to the motto on a drawing board during a meeting with his worker bees on the NURV Campus, their eyes light up. When he tells them that the computer business is “binary—you’re a one or a zero, alive or dead!”, they sit up a little straighter in their seats and nod their heads in understanding. And when he exhorts them to “Surprise me, challenge me, defy me! Defy yourselves!”, they applaud. A few even jump to their feet as if in a fit of admiration. Amen and hallelujah! This guy is a god!
Yeah, right. Unless you haven’t been getting out much lately, you probably know that the most common movie villains these days—aside from the usual standby Nazis—are lawyers and computer executives, especially those who are obscenely wealthy. Robbins adopts an appropriately Anti-Christ-like posture in Antitrust. He’s soft-faced and slightly rumpled, wearing khakis and geek-boy glasses, and his eyes are squinty (maybe even a little shifty?) from years spent staring at computer codes. While he’s pondering some mysterious bit of brilliance that may (or may not) be wafting through his mind, he chomps on handfuls of Pringles, and for a minute, he looks like a regular man, or better, a kid who’s figuring out some hard-to-crack videogame. In truth, Gary isn’t very charismatic, but that’s part of the magic—by his very like-themness, he inspires groveling devotion from his emotionally screwed-up minions.
No surprise, Antitrust has a bone to pick with this billionaire. Like other technophobic movies (The Net, Virtuosity, and the insanely entertaining Lawnmower Man come to mind), this one pits the bad corporate structure, embodied by Gary, against independent thinking, embodied by Milo (Ryan Phillippe). Milo is introduced as an idealistic computer whiz, just graduating and looking for a way to bring his wondrous talents to the public sector. At first, Milo has a utopian vision, which he shares with his best friend and partner-on-school-projects, Teddy (Yee Jee Tso), of creating a satellite-delivered global communications system, to connect all communications devices with one content source, also known as “digital convergence.” Milo and Teddy have visions of this system working for the public good—you know, like the “Eyes Only” streaming video in TV’s Dark Angel, where good guys valiantly expose corruption and bust criminals during a daily feed to all televisions and radios, sort of Cops without the racism or the nightsticks. But Gary has other ideas. And… [insert tension-making music here] he’s not about to let anyone get in his way.
Gary invites Milo for a weekend at the Campus, and after about 20 seconds of thinking it over, the kid abandons his best friend and his ideals, and moves to Portland, along with his girlfriend Alice (Claire Forlani), where he’s given a new SUV, a cozy home, and all kinds of instructions about where he can and can’t go on Campus. He meets some geek-boys (one called Stinky, because you know, of course, that computer freaks don’t wash) and a geek-girl, Lisa (Rachel Leigh Cook, again, as in She’s All That, passing for the anti-glamour girl). Once Milo starts working on this system, which is rigged with an arbitrary, looming deadline, the film lapses into total ridiculousness (I mean, total, on the level of The Skulls). A tragedy befalls one of Milo’s school buddies, and almost immediately, Milo figures out that Gary’s behind it. Ordinarily, his figuring would seem too fast and too convenient, but given that viewers have reached this realization long before, the poor kid just looks dim-witted. Immediately following, the film takes a few leaps and bounds of logic and suddenly Milo’s caught up in some surveillance antics straight out of a Bruce Willis movie, or better yet, Mission Impossible—the derivation is so obvious that one of Milo’s assailants asks him, in mid-kick-to-the-head, “What’s with all the MI3 bullshit?! You’re a geek!” Indeed he is, but now he’s living out the geek’s dream, fully capable of running, jumping, and kicking ass like Lara Croft.
No matter that all of the above makes little sense. Halfway through Antitrust, you’re more than likely to have given up on that angle, and will be watching just to see what other lunatic elements pop up (and there are plenty, including Milo’s fatal allergy to a certain foodstuff, Alice’s tragic backstory, and Gary’s snide jokes about Bill Gates). Amid the chaos, Antitrust makes two rudimentary arguments. The most obvious is also the most hypocritical and least surprising: corporations are bad. Or at least, the ones with monomaniacal heads are bad. I suppose that the corporations that produce tripe like Antitrust let themselves off the moral hook, or frankly don’t care what you think of them. The other argument is less convincingly made, but it’s the one that you might presume provided a nominal reason, aside from cash, for Robbins and Phillippe (both performers with well-known and committed liberal politics) to sign on for this feeble project. This is the argument voiced as a motto by Milo, which he says has been handed down to him by a wise elder: “Human knowledge belongs to the world.” And there you have it, straight from MGM: Napster is a good thing.