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Movie Review: 'The Circle' Spins a Tame Tale of Digital Paranoia


Published May 3, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated May 8, 2017 at 2:24 p.m.

The Social Network meets The Firm, sort of, in James Ponsoldt's thriller, a cautionary tale that its creators would have done well to employ more caution in realizing. Adapted by Dave Eggers from his 2013 novel, with an assist from Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), The Circle strains to create the illusion that it has something profound to say about privacy rights, the evils of data gathering or the breaking news that Big Brother is watching. It never settles on which futuristic red flag it wants to wave, however. The result is a cautionary slog.

Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, a millennial who feels she's found her path when she lands a position at the eponymous social media behemoth. The movie's best moments come early, as she acclimates to life on the sprawling, Google-esque campus. While coworkers are relentlessly cheery, Mae soon learns serious lessons.

For example, nobody has to take part in the company activities scheduled for every weekend (free Beck concert!), but why wouldn't you? Is something more important to you than the Circle? Well, Mae's dad is home dying of MS (played by the irreplaceable Bill Paxton in his final performance). But, Mae agrees, they can Skype or whatever.

She's also reminded of her online obligation to coworkers. Post! How else are Circlers on the other side of campus going to know how she's doing? Not sharing personal information is considered a form of selfishness.

Tom Hanks channels Steve Jobs as Eamon Bailey, the Circle's visionary leader. Naturally, he dresses with studied casualness — jeans and sweater, cup of java constantly in hand — and, naturally, he presides over product introductions the size of Nuremberg rallies. Mae gains favor at one by volunteering to test-drive a new device.

Called SeeChange, it's a wearable camera that promotes transparency, one of the film's favorite buzzwords, by broadcasting her life 24-7. It's so The Truman Show, there's even a scene in which Mae churns through a storm in a kayak as omnipresent Circle cameras broadcast her jailbreak attempt to the world. The character vacillates in her view of the Circle's ethically questionable mission, but the movie's sloppy editing makes her internal struggle all but impossible to follow.

Speaking of the script's history trail: It also borrows from The Parallax View, The Master, The Fifth Estate and, ironically, You've Got Mail. The Hanks-Meg Ryan rom com was, you may recall, among the first films to superimpose email messages on the screen like information-age speech balloons. Mae gets lots of mail.

But what message do Ponsoldt and Eggers mean to send here? In the era of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden — not to mention President Donald Trump's April repeal of Federal Communications Commission internet privacy laws — just how sinister are we expected to find a tech firm with plans to bring medical records and voter registration under its umbrella? The whole thing sounds about as Orwellian as the DMV. Especially considering that it's now perfectly legal for my smartphone to spy on me.

I would encourage Hanks to give it a rest with the Eggers adaptations. Last year's A Hologram for the King was the biggest flop of his career. According to Box Office Mojo, The Circle took in slightly more than $9 million over the weekend, playing on 3,163 screens. That's the 38th-worst opening for any wide release in history (by way of context, No. 74 is Battlefield Earth). The numbers say it all. This dud is such a yawn, not even Big Brother is watching.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Circle"