Cutting-edge, connect-the-world technology can be a double-edged sword. Even as we voluntarily share more and more of our lives with friends and strangers alike, we’re surrendering our privacy in ways we can’t even imagine — and the consequences might even outweigh the advantages.
“The Circle” is a cautionary Big Brother cyber thriller touching on themes explored in “The Net” (1995), “The Truman Show” (1998), “EDtv” (1999) and “Minority Report” (2002), with just a hint of “The Firm” (1993) and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956 and 1978), not to mention the “Gryzzl” storyline on the TV series “Parks and Recreation.”
I don’t think you and I need to connect on InstaSkypeChatFaceSnapTweeterBook for you to understand I’m saying we’ve seen this movie before.
It’s just usually not this smug or condescending or muddled or inconsistent.
Emma Watson (doing an admirable job of burying her British accent) plays the plucky, sweet, smart and ambitious Mae, who lands an entry-level, customer-service job with The Circle, a massive and enormously successful San Francisco-area data-collecting and information-sharing corporation.
The Circle “campus” is an amazing place, filled with upbeat millennials who love their jobs and spend every waking and even sleeping moment in the embrace of The Circle. (Employees can stay in apartments, aka glorified dorm rooms, right on company property.)
On “Dream Friday,” everyone gathers in an on-site auditorium to soak up the wisdom of The Circle’s co-founder, one Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who bounds onto the stage wearing Steve Jobs Casual clothing and proceeds to dazzle his worshipful congregation with his warm, self-deprecating humor and his grand visions.
The first time Mae attends Dream Friday, Eamon introduces a satellite-connected camera the size of a small pebble that will cost less than the inexpensive jeans he’s sporting. Millions upon millions of these tiny cameras will placed in every spot in the world, without any government’s permission.
This is the next step in The Circle’s grand plan for total, worldwide transparency. Everyone, everywhere will always be under surveillance — and wouldn’t the world be a better place without secrets of any kind?
In one of the film’s more effectively chilling scenes, two disturbingly energetic Circle managers confront Mae after her first week on the job and chide her for not participating in “non-mandatory” late-night and weekend company activities tailored to her personal life.
They know Mae likes to kayak. Well, there’s a kayaking group right there at the Circle! Why not join?
They’re aware her father has MS. Turns out there are four different support groups for employees with relatives who have MS.
In quick fashion, Mae goes from joking about drinking the company Kool-Aid to guzzling it, no questions asked. We can almost see her brain cells disappearing as she buys into The Circle’s ever-intrusive game plan and becomes a rising star, especially after she agrees to wear a body-cam 24/7 and share every detail of her life with anyone who has joined The Circle.
To pound home the message about how all this Big Brother stuff contrasts with Mae’s roots, we occasionally drop in on Mae’s parents, Bonnie (Glenne Headly) and Vinnie (the late Bill Paxton in his final film role), who are just so gosh-darn proud of their daughter, and just so grateful when the in-house medical team at the Circle provides some much-needed treatment for Vinnie’s MS.
And then there’s Mae’s lifelong friend and onetime potential love interest Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, the kid who grew up in “Boyhood”), an off-the-grid, real guy who drives an old pickup, makes chandeliers out of deer antlers (I’m not kidding) and tells Mae she used to go on adventures in the real world and have fun and actually see things with her own eyes, but now she’s all about the virtual experience instead of being in the moment.
John Boyega (Finn in “Star Wars”) plays Ty, the inventor of The Circle’s technology, who keeps popping up at the most opportune times to act as Mae’s conscience. Nothing about this character makes sense within earlier established parameters. His presence at certain times is wildly implausible.
The wonderful Patton Oswalt is underused as The Circle’s COO. Karen Gillan plays Mae’s best friend Annie, whose story arc is laughably obvious from the first time she appears onscreen. And the great Tom Hanks is at the mercy of a script that doesn’t provide much insight into Bailey’s motivations, and turns the guy into a sitcom dupe in a pivotal moment.
“The Circle” is all the more disappointing, given it was based on a novel by the brilliant wordsmith Dave Eggers and directed by James Ponsoldt of “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour” acclaim.
This is one of the most crashing letdowns of 2017.
‘The Circle’ ★1⁄2
STX Entertainment presents a film directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on Eggers’ novel. Rated PG-13 (for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.