Starring Emma Watson. Rated PG
There’s a great scene in The Circle, when the young, smiling social-media crew comes to welcome—read: ambush—new recruit Mae at a Google-meets-Apple-meets-Facebook-style empire. They’ve been monitoring her number of posts and followers, and while, no, it’s not mandatory, she should really be using the company’s social networks more. Just like she should be showing up for more of the sports and classes and concerts on weekends. No, those aren’t compulsory either, but, you know…
It’s a tantalizing taste of what this movie might have done as a black satire about the hidden perils of the high-tech world, with its “flex hours”, cultlike guru–CEOs, and employee “campuses” with ping-pong tables and yoga classes.
But then The Circle, based on the David Eggers book of the same name, builds a clever premise that it can’t play out, spinning its strong setup into a muddied, melodramatic, and ultimately unbuyable treatise on wired-world surveillance. Instead of Eggers’s dark cautionary farce, we get a Hollywoodized “thriller” dumbed down and jacked up with text messages and viral video—presumably pandering to what it thinks are those damn iPhone-toting millennial kids.
The film does have a polished, tech-savvy sheen, making the Circle campus a sort of hipster Tomorrowland and floating the chatter of social media. At the head of it all, you have sincere Eamon Bailey, Tom Hanks (doing a great job wearing a Steve Jobs–like beard and jeans), blending TED-Talk-like lectures with warm employee pep rallies and grandiose pronouncements about the pocket-size cameras he wants to stick everywhere: “Knowing is good but knowing everything is better.”
But as Mae, Emma Watson has little to do but be meek and naive, eager to gulp down Bailey’s Kool-Aid with barely a second thought. Before you know it, she’s agreed to have her entire life streamed—except, it’s made clear, for bathroom breaks.
Another noteworthy disappointment is Ellar Coltrane, so luminescent and natural in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, here wooden as Mercer, Mae’s old friend, who we know is not a computer guy because he hand-crafts artisanal light fixtures out of antlers.
Ultimately, The Circle has next to nothing smart, or even new, to say about the way we’re all being watched in the information age. Instead, we get barely-TV-worthy kayak mishaps, car accidents, and vaults with corporate secrets. In the end, The Circle can’t even seem to decide if omnipresent cameras are a good or a bad thing. Let’s just go with bad, shall we?