January 13, 2001

Open Source, the movie: 'AntiTrust' reviewed

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -
In "AntiTrust," the new movie pitting a bunch of good-looking Open Source coders against a big, bad software company, the message is well-intentioned if a bit heavy-handed, but the plot requires you to suspend disbelief at several turns.

Still, it's the first major-studio picture starring the Open Source movement, so you may want to see it despite a predictable story line and uneven performances from its young cast. Or you could see it just to count the number of times the Gnome desktop appears, mostly for a second or two at a time.

"AntiTrust" stars too-pretty-to-be-a-geek Ryan Phillippe as Milo, a recent Stanford computer science graduate who abandons his friends' Open Source startup to work for software giant NURV (Never Underestimate Radical Vision) and its potato chip-munching, temper tantrum-prone founder Gary Winston (Tim Robbins). Winston, who flaunts his incredible wealth in his Pacific Northwest palace, spews speeches that would make any high school football coach proud, repeating things like, "The software business is binary. You're either a one or a zero, alive or dead."

First suspended disbelief: Winston hires Milo to work on Synapse, a satellite-powered messaging system that is supposed to allow someone with the right codes to broadcast anything they want to every TV, cell phone, and computer in the world. Milo signs up 42 days before Synapse is supposed to launch.

Second suspended disbelief: While the backdrop of NURV's huge campus appears somewhat realistic, with action figures and movie posters at the worker bees' desks, everyone is exceptionally well groomed despite working crazy hours to finish Synapse.

Third suspended disbelief: The neat, Hollywood ending wraps the loose ends up with amazing simplicity. The bad guys end up with nearly laughable consequences after the movie's climax.

Fourth suspended disbelief: Winston has his fingers everywhere, stealing code from the top programmers around the world, and planting moles in convenient places no evil genius could ever anticipate.

A deep vein of paranoia runs throughout the movie, one even the most fanatical conspiracy theorists might find amusing. But, hey, it's a movie, and if you go into it thinking you're seeing James Bond as a geek, you can feel like you're watching entertaining cheese. And it's fun to see what gadgets the movie-makers can dream up, things like electronic canvasses that automatically adjust the art to the taste of the person who's entered the room.

However, there are a couple of scenes that had the audience laughing, and not because the humor was intended. When Milo realizes Winston isn't quite what he seems, the special effects had the geek boys sitting behind me snorting at the cheesiness of it all. In another scene, Milo casually drops Bill Gate's name in a conversation with Winston, as if to say, "Look, this really isn't a movie based on Microsoft. Really!"

Character development takes a back seat to plot twists, although the comment from my movie-going partner was, "Even your non-geek girlfriend could anticipate everything that happened." Don't expect a lot of surprises.

Characters Alice (Claire Forlani) as Milo's girlfriend and Lisa (Rachel Leigh Cook) as a NURV-boy lust object are flat, and their purpose seems to be as much a reward to the 17-year-old geek boys in training who'll see the movie as to further the plot. The movie's rated PG-13, so don't expect too much of the eye candy.

Still, the movie has the classic David vs. Goliath theme that some audiences will enjoy, especially when the David is a small group of Open Source crusaders and the Goliath is a Microsoft clone. Movie-goers looking for an in-depth explanation of Open Source will be disappointed -- the one-line description is something like, "Knowledge should be shared with the world." The movie's Web site goes into more depth, although some of the information isn't available unless you have Apple's Quicktime.

There was scattered applause from the audience at the suburban Baltimore megaplex where I saw "AntiTrust" Friday night. But if you want to see it in a theater, go soon. On opening night, the theater was about a quarter full. "AntiTrust" is probably worth a $7.50 ticket on a night when you've got nothing else planned.

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