One of the dilemmas of ‘The Circle,’ a dystopian thriller about the perils of oversharing one’s personal data on the Internet is that it is already happening in real life. It is unfortunate the movie never finds the right tone. Based on Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, indie director James Ponsoldt takes a stab at his first big-budget picture. Ponsoldt is a brilliant independent filmmaker responsible for such works as ‘Smashed,’ ‘The Spectacular Now’ and ‘The End of the Tour.’ His forte is small interpersonal dramas and not glossy tech thrillers. Ultimately ‘The Circle’ turns out to be disappointingly square.
Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, a young millennial that gets hired at The Circle, a tech company that is a mix of Facebook, Google and Apple. Watson is likable in the lead role but it is difficult to believe that she would “drink the Kool-Aid.” It’s actually fun to watch Mae learn the ropes at her new customer experience position. She’s really just a glorified customer service rep. Within a short period of time, she gets noticed as an asset to the company’s mantra “sharing is caring.” At a Circle rally similar to an Apple product launch, CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) unveils a new product that will eliminate corruption around the globe. It’s a tiny camera in the shape of an eye labeled SeeChange. It is Orwellian surveillance to the nth degree but hey, if Tom Hanks says it will benefit mankind, it must be true.
Eamon recruits Mae to go completely transparent with her life. She goes along with the experiment because the opportunity is too good to pass up. She will wear a camera on herself and place them all over her apartment. When she wakes up, millions of viewers watch her every move as she has a cup of coffee and lifecasts every part of her life, excluding small bathroom breaks. Her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) sees how the invasive transparency is bad. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) tries to warn her that selling her privacy is selling her soul to the totalitarian corporation. Even Rogue One’s John Boyega tries to warn Mae of the evils of The Circle’s app TrueYou that captures too much information about users’ lives. Mae ignores the warnings and “goes fully transparent” anyway. It’s hard to believe that someone as intelligent as Watson would buy into this Orwellian gimmick.
It’s not to say that this film is bad. The performances are good but the story never builds up any suspense. ‘The Circle’ is supposed to be a cautionary tale but we share so much of our lives on social media today that the fears in the movie do not seem that ominous. Tom Hanks’ character never plays a true bad guy. In a sense, the movie is pointing a finger at us for surrendering our privacy to technology. The Circle’s corporate campus looks like a cult the way its employees walk around like zombies with their tech devices. Most young people will watch this movie and go what’s the problem? Recent college graduates would do whatever it takes to snag a job at Google or Facebook. The truth is that George Orwell’s future is already here so it is hard to cringe at the dangers of over-surveillance as a threat to our privacy.
Mae’s parents are played by Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton. They are terrific actors and believable as Generation Xers trying to look out for the best interest of their daughter. Sadly this is Paxton’s last role before he died this year from surgery complications. Watson is just coming off her success as Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ She’s fun to watch but she never feels like the right fit for this role. It’s good to see Coltrane as Watson’s ex-beau trying to go off the grid and go under the radar of The Circle’s technology. ‘The Circle’ desperately wants to warn us about Big Brother so if you go see it, remember to turn off your smartphones. It’s so rude to text during a movie.