I’ve mentioned before, in my review of The Legend of Boggy Creek, that I used to look forward to reading Maitland McDonagh’s “Ask FlickChick” column each week with great anticipation as a preteen. Some movies, like Boggy Creek, were perennial favorites, movies half-remembered by children of the seventies and eighties from repeated airings on late-night cable or watched secretly at mostly-forgotten sleepovers. One such film that stuck in the minds of that generation’s children was a film about a young girl who discovers that there are other girls who share her face; McDonagh was often happy to inform them that they were remembering the made-for-TV children’s thriller Anna to the Infinite Power, which premiered on HBO in 1982 and on home video in 1983.
The film’s plot follows Anna Hart (Martha Byrne), the brilliant but bratty daughter of scientist Sarah (Dina Merrill) and piano teacher Graham (Jack Ryland). Anna is a genius, but she has a history of stealing and misbehaving, prioritizes her scientific studies to the extent that her artistic accomplishments are mechanical and uninspired, is afflicted with migraines caused by flickering lights, and is openly disrespectful to her teacher (Loretta Devine, who unfortunately doesn’t get much to do here). Graham doesn’t understand why Sarah is always so defensive about Anna’s brilliance, but he chooses to let it go. The couple also have an older son, Rowan (Mark Patton, star of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: The One with the Homoerotic
SubText), who is studying music as well. Rounding out the main cast is Donna Mitchell as Michaela Dupont, another piano teacher who has moved in across the street from the Harts at the time that the film opens.
One night, Anna has a dream about being on a rough flight and being comforted by a woman who seems to be her mother, but isn’t. When she awakes the next morning, she finds that there has been a plane crash in Philadelphia and a girl who looks like her is interviewed by a reporter at the scene. Rowan, who is initially sceptical, finds a photo of this other Anna in the newspaper and agrees to help his sister figure out what’s going on. The two track down the home of the second Anna, but when her mother answers the door, she claims to have no daughter; when they leave, they are attacked by a biplane piloted by someone who has seen North by Northwest one too many times. They escape this murderous pilot and are found by their mother, who tells them the truth: Anna is just one of many girls who were cloned from a scientist named Anna Zimmerman, a girl who was the daughter of a scientist and a musician and lived through the Holocaust to become a scientist in her own right, but died just as she was on the verge of finalizing her designs of the “replicator,” a food generating device that would end world hunger. An unnamed genetics company devised a plan to clone Zimmerman and raise these clones in a similar family structure with the goal of one day recreating an Anna who can complete the replicator device.
For a movie ostensibly made for children, this is a dark but engrossing and ambitious feature with a great premise that paints the world in ambiguous colors. The reveal that the flickering lights cause Anna pain because Anna Zimmerman’s sister, a composer, was well liked by a Nazi commandant who forced her to play her trademark sonata (which is also the film’s main musical leitmotif) by candlelight is particularly grim; in an interview on the 2010 DVD release of the film, Patton talks about how he is still recognized on the street for his role in this movie, and that he has heard from many people that they first learned about the Holocaust as children by watching this film. The horrifying, soul-crushing truth about the extent of the historical event is only alluded to here, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a kid’s movie that explicitly referenced concentration camps, outside of those narratives that are based on the lives of real survivors.
In contemporary children’s media, we rarely see stories that explicitly tell children to question authority, or which suggest children should be given agency in the decisions which affect their future life. Here, Anna is exposed to the cruel fact of life that adults make terrible decisions, that parents lie to their children and to each other (Sarah volunteered to be a mother in the Anna program, but Graham knew nothing about it), and that grown-ups can be as easily manipulated as children, or choose to do immoral things because they, like children, are trapped within the horizon of their own beliefs. Most importantly, Anna comes to realize that companies (and governments) can and will sacrifice innocents in the pursuit of a “greater good,” although the ends—be it a stronger, independent Germany, as was the case for the regime that nearly killed Anna Zimmerman, or the end of world hunger, as was the goal of the experiment that created and nearly destroyed Anna Hart—do not justify the means. By the time a youngster watching this movie learns that the organization that created Anna is completely unethical and evil (Michaela is actually the only escapee/survivor of a previous batch of Annas, who were killed along with their families when they were unable to recreate Zimmerman’s work, a fate that is planned for Anna Hart’s fellow clones and their respective families before Michaela intervenes), they’ve probably learned more about human nature than they could have imagined. Life is cheap, trust is a commodity, and blind faith in a higher order of authority can lead to destruction of the highest and most disturbing caliber.
Anna is not a perfect movie. The production values are very low, and this shows in a lot of the scenes, particularly early in the film. Still, the movie is an exercise in economical filmmaking both monetarily and within the commodity of time; not a single frame or note is wasted, and all of it builds towards an ambiguous ending that, judging by the sheer number of people who wrote to McDonagh about it, left an impression on an entire generation of kids who were lucky enough to grow up with HBO. I hate to sound like an old fart, but the 1980s and 1990s were a glorious time for children’s media; animated films did not shy away from being somber and occasionally frightening or macabre, and television was more open about the fact that adults didn’t know everything. Today, we live in a world where children’s media underwent a massive shift in the first part of the new millennium, as American culture moved from inquisitive outspokenness to enforced jingoistic patriotism and adherence to authority in the wake of 9/11, and the TV programs and movies produced for children followed suit, turning into a pablum of trite, cheery shows with little reflection of reality. Although the tides of this anti-intellectual movement have finally started to turn (most notably in the popularity of The Hunger Games, which I find laudable because of its themes that the government can’t be trusted and that media is intentionally manipulated to prevent criticism of toxic institutions), parents would be well served by looking back to the late twentieth century for realistic heroes and important messages about society and its ills. Anna to the Infinite Power is definitely something I intend to show to my (future, hypothetical) children, and I would recommend you do the same.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond