Review: ‘The Circle’ imagines a world of deadly social media

Tom Hanks runs a tech company with sinister intentions in ‘The Circle.’ (Screenshot from ‘The Circle’ trailer)

Movies have a very contentious relationship with social media. “The Social Network” envisioned the founding of Facebook as a tragic breakdown in friendships. Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” took a brief glance at a girl’s suicidal thoughts and the death of a marriage and chalked most of it up to the dark corners of the Internet. In 2014’s “Unfriended,” a group of teenagers all met through grisly ends via Skype.

Some of these films are better than others. “The Social Network” won three Oscars and many consider it a modern classic. But at the heart of these stories is a deep-seated distrust of the digital age. If their themes are to be taken at face value, then the Internet is little more than the Devil delivered through Wi-Fi.

“The Circle,” based on Dave Eggers’ acclaimed 2013 novel, is the latest film to portray the “evils” of giant tech corporations. Emma Watson stars as Mae, a recent college graduate who lands a job at the a high tech company called The Circle.

Part Google, part Apple and part Facebook, The Circle quickly becomes Mae’s home as she rises through the ranks and is swallowed up in the company’s groupthink. Co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, phoning it in from his first line) reveals new technological advancements each week, including invisible cameras that can be placed anywhere and an algorithm that can find anyone, anywhere. Why? Because, as Eamon wills Mae to believe, “secrets are lies.” Meanwhile, Mae’s childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) grows distrustful of her reliance on the digital world, and a mysterious “Circler” (John Boyega) expresses resistance to the company’s goals.

Watch the trailer for “The Circle” here:

In the hands of a capable director who understands the value of understatement, “The Circle” might have made for decent entertainment. But director James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”), who helped Eggers adapt his novel to the screen, constructs a film with all the nuance of a high school essay. The characters speak in terms so broad their actual points becomes impossible to trace.

The philosophical debate at the film’s center is ridiculously simplistic and grandiose. Once a week, The Circle unveils technology that’s an obvious invasion of privacy. Yet the company’s employees cheer it on like sheep. If their reaction is intended to be a critique of Silicon Valley groupthink, it doesn’t work. The people working at one of the most advanced companies in the world come off like idiots.

Ponsoldt and Eggers’ screenplay demonstrates a disregard for basic plotting as well. Subplots begin and remain unresolved over two hours. Characters act without regard for logic. Others are criminally underused. The film’s jarring tonal shifts run counter to Eggers’ original, dark vision.

Perhaps the film’s performances could have saved it from mediocrity. But Watson appears out of her depth. Half a decade removed from Hogwarts, the actress must make Mae’s journey from unwitting employee to influential tech guru at least appear plausible. She settles for a thin veneer of innocence and naivete, a decision that makes Mae both bland and easily hateable. Meanwhile, Hanks misses an opportunity to throw his “American Stepdad” persona to the wind. Rather than sink his teeth into a villainous role, he replaces menace with boredom. Mae’s friend and fellow Circler Annie is the sole bright spot, thanks to a magnetic turn from Karen Gillian.

There are nuances to the digital world in which we now live. Those nuances do not exist to the creators of “The Circle.” Social media, they suggest, can invade lives, destroy governments and kill. The idea would be frightening if it came from a movie less smugly idiotic. The right to privacy is a worthy debate topic and will remain so as long as companies like Google, Facebook and Uber exist. But films like “The Circle” have little of value to say about it.

Follow Dana on Twitter @alstondalston

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