A future tech hell.

By Jeff John Roberts
April 27, 2017

What would happen if Google merged with Facebook to create an all-knowing social network? The result might look a lot like The Circle, a company that can invade every last corner of our private lives.

In the movie The Circle, which comes out Friday, Emma Watson and Tom Hanks show us what such a tech hell would feel like—where “privacy is theft” and “secrets are lies,” and where a corporation like Facebook or Google could force governments to bow entirely to their will.

Based on the 2013 novel by David Eggers, the film opens with pretty, nature-loving Mae escaping her soul-crushing job at the local utility and landing a gig at The Circle. The job offers all the earthly delights of a Silicon Valley giant: fat salary, campus parties, yoga, a kennel and so on. It also lets Mae provide her father, who has multiple sclerosis, with much-needed treatment.

All goes well for Mae until creepy HR folks show up to tell her she is failing on the social front. They point out Mae spends evenings and weekends away from work, and she has not joined even one of the four different MS support groups for Circle employees.

Needless to say, Mae ups her game and drinks deeply from the Circle’s corporate culture. She gets the attention of guru-boss Bailey (Hanks), who beguiles Mae and everyone else with the potential of the Sea-Cam, a tiny device that lets people broadcast everything around them and share with their friends all the time.

Soon Mae is the first Circle employee to go totally “transparent,” wearing the camera at all times (she can turn it off for three minutes in the bathroom stall) and subject to an unceasing swarm of social media comments. The experiment quickly goes awry, though, as Mae broadcasts her parents having sex, and helps an online mob badger her cute boy-next-door hiking buddy to this death.

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If all this sounds close to reality, let’s just say the timing of The Circle’s release is particularly good. It comes as Facebook’s grand push to get everyone to “go live” with their daily activity is producing horrifying results (including live-streamed murders and rapes), and as democracies cower at how the media power of Google and Facebook can sway elections. Meanwhile, the combination of live-streaming and facial recognition technology, which seemed like a frightening future technology when Eggers wrote his novel, is truly upon us.

The challenge, though, for The Circle and for other chronicles of our current tech anxieties, including the TV show Black Mirror, is to show the perils of all this tech—without hitting us over the head with the point.

In this, The Circle only partially succeeds. While strong acting performances by Watson and Hanks make the movie engrossing, it at times feels overdone and obvious. Yes, tech companies have an unhealthy obsession with data. Yes, we probably spend too much time on our phones. But the film’s in-your-face depiction of tech tyranny can feel trite and heavy-handed, especially without many of the subtleties of Eggers’s novel (described in an excellent 2013 review by Margaret Atwood, whose own dystopian work The Handmaid’s Tale also comes to the screen this week).

Director James Ponsoldt does find ways to lighten up the film, including through the messages conveyed in the stream of funny or ironic social media comments that swirl around Mae. The Circle also includes a cool music cameo by Beck, and does a good job of capturing the bubble of corporate tech campuses.

The movie is also helped by portraying Hanks’s CEO character not as a sneering villain, but as an avuncular uncle type, who seduces with charm and humor. Also deserving kudos is Karen Gillan, who nails her role as Annie, a hollowed-out corporate shell and Mae’s friend.

The film’s strongest moments are when Circle employees cheer on Mae’s transparency efforts, which sweeps the movie audience up in a similar desire to be a part of all that online approval.

Due to an editing error, an original version of this story misstated the director’s first name.

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