Two decades ago, witnesses at Microsoft’s landmark antitrust trial claimed the company had threatened to violently murder software. One said Microsoft had ordered Apple to abandon QuickTime by “knifing the baby.” Another recalled a threat to “cut off Netscape’s air supply” and metaphorically asphyxiate the browser company into submission. Microsoft denied both quotes. But as the trial progressed, a team of filmmakers took the next logical step: what if Microsoft was literally murdering software programmers?
Thus Antitrust was born — a convoluted thriller that, looking back, is both cynically conspiratorial and surprisingly optimistic about the future of Big Tech.
Spoilers for Antitrust ahead.
Antitrust, released in 2001, is an extremely dot-com-era take on the conspiracy thriller genre. The film starts with hotshot programmer Milo Hoffman (Ryan Phillippe) getting recruited by tech tycoon Gary Winston (Tim Robbins), who runs a massive and ubiquitous computing company called NURV.
Just like Microsoft, NURV is being investigated for antitrust violations, although it’s less clear why. (We learn vaguely that NURV is infamous for cloning software, and that it’s building some kind of media empire with hardware like set-top boxes.) Where Microsoft was once referred to as the “Death Star,” billionaire philanthropist Winston complains about websites calling him Satan. But Milo’s job is to make NURV far more powerful than Microsoft ever was since NURV is about to launch a data network called Synapse that will link “every communication device on the planet.”
Director Peter Howitt has said Antitrust was inspired by the “part of us [that] wants to believe you can’t be that successful without being really badly criminal.” To be sure, Microsoft was on trial for doing something illegal. But Howitt describes Antitrust as playing to our even darker collective suspicions about modern capitalism where “we think there must be some bodies buried somewhere.”
It might be more accurate to say that NURV is successful despite being badly criminal. NURV — an acronym for “Never Underestimate Radical Vision,” pronounced “nerve,” like the sinister task force in Neon Genesis Evangelion — is enthusiastically running a triathlon of evil. It’s a monopolistic, anti-open-source conglomerate like Microsoft. It’s a generic Silicon Valley super corporation that controls the flow of information and keeps invasive surveillance dossiers on its employees. And while all these characteristics might work to its advantage, it’s also gratuitously, impractically, and sometimes counterproductively into murder.
As Milo starts work on Synapse, he realizes the project is way behind schedule and working on an incredibly tight deadline. Then, Winston starts feeding the design team some brilliant code… and programmers outside the company, including one of Milo’s friends, start dying. Coincidence? Of course not.
Antitrust’s conceit is that NURV is on its way to becoming the most powerful tech company in history (including Microsoft, which canonically exists in this universe), yet it’s so afraid of antitrust regulators that it will carry out elaborate and deadly heists to avoid officially acquiring a competitor, despite having already infiltrated the government agency responsible for investigating antitrust claims. Unfortunately, good software developers are also incredibly rare in Antitrust’s world. Winston tells Milo there are 20 people in the world capable of finishing Synapse on time, and he’s one of them.
So where some companies might meet a deadline by hiring more employees or implementing crunch hours, NURV is stuck crafting schemes to plagiarize these super coders’ work. The company’s development workflow involves finding a programmer writing exactly the right code for a project, planting cameras in their apartment to capture their typing, sending one of NURV’s own employees to bludgeon the programmer to death, framing a local gang, storing camera footage of the murder on a database secretly located in a day care center, then passing the deeply suspicious code to another employee that it recruited through a months-long honeypot operation. It’s the corporate equivalent of building a death ray to rob a lemonade stand.
The implication is that a powerful figure like Gary Winston can get away with poorly executed, bizarrely complex, and fairly blatant criminality because he’s neutralized anyone who has the power to stop him. Antitrust blends classic conspiracy tropes with anti-monopoly arguments as Milo realizes that every powerful institution is associated with NURV, including a news media that’s been compromised by partnerships.
This is a timeless, often appropriate kind of cynicism, and it feels particularly relevant while we’re in the midst of two huge mergers involving some of the biggest tech and media companies in existence. Antitrust was released at a point where Microsoft had been declared a monopoly and ordered to break itself up, but even that condemnation softened over time since it later settled to avoid a split. NURV’s investments parallel Microsoft’s deals with Comcast, WebTV, and other companies in the ‘90s, but they also echo the structure of modern vertical monopolies. NURV’s non-Synapse software is limited to vaguely handwaved “programs,” but a news report mentions that it’s been buying up cable companies and telecom Baby Bells.
But Antitrust is also incredibly idealistic about the power of transparency. Milo manages to turn Synapse against Winston and NURV, hijacking the world’s screens to share a video of the killings mixed with slogans like “MURDERED FOR CODE.” The world immediately turns against Winston and his co-conspirators, they’re arrested, and Milo rejoins his old startup, which is based around open-source principles. “Do you consider this the ultimate victory for open source?” a reporter gushes.
It might not be the ultimate victory, but Antitrust does take place in a world where being able to access and distribute information — a key element of open source — creates a fairer, better world. It’s part of an old vision of the web that’s become a lot fuzzier recently, and it’s a striking contrast to much of the reality of antitrust in 2018 when the world’s most popular open-source software platform’s creator is being fined for operating a monopoly. Antitrust isn’t a dark commentary about Microsoft blurring the line between virtual and physical harm — or, in Milo’s words, forgetting that “in the real world, when you kill people, they die. For real!” It’s an unevenly entertaining, often ridiculous fantasy that makes crushing competition look a lot harder than it really is.