THE CIRCLE (Movie Review)

Circle
** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for a sexual situation, brief strong language, and some thematic elements )
Released:  April 28, 2017
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt, Bill Paxton, Glenne Headly, Ellar Coltrane, John 
Boyega

This circle is pretty square.

Despite as impressive a creative team as you could hope for, this Dave Eggers social media thriller has only one flaw, but it’s fatal and in the foundation: the script.

Based on Eggers’ novel and written for the screen by Eggers and director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour), The Circle is a modern parable set in the titular tech powerhouse. It’s essentially Facebook, Google, Apple, Twitter, and every other social media platform combined. Or, more simply, it’s Silicon Valley all in one, on a single ginormous compound.

That campus and its culture run like a 21st Century cult, with every employee (along with the world, apparently) drinking The Circle’s digital kool-aid. Led by charismatic guru Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, in quite possibly the best performance from a bad movie you’ll ever see), the worker bees laugh at his every quip and praise every idea he utters as they live too-perfect lives in their near-future bubble, all the while enforcing one-hundred percent job effectiveness through super polite passive aggression.

When out-of-work Mae (Emma Watson, Beauty and the Beast) catches a break and is hired to The Circle’s support staff, it’s not too long before she begins to see what apparently thousands of others never have: they’re all effectively brainwashed, walking around in a millennial Stepford stupor.

Honestly, everyone in this movie is more stupid than nearly everyone who will watch it.

The premise, and how it’s portrayed, is a bit shaky but easy enough to run with until the plot’s primary “what if” doubles down on the far-fetched. Eamon Bailey reveals a new tech camera so small, portable, and wireless that it can be placed covertly anywhere in the world and record whatever its owner sets its lens on. The device is called SeeChange (Those tech giants sure have a way with branding, don’t they? You know, like Dad jokes.)  and it has the power to eradicate privacy entirely, turning the entire planet into an international Truman Show.

And this is applauded.

How can an audience that lives in a world where Kellyanne Conway’s microwave camera was mercilessly mocked possibly take this movie seriously? It can’t.

But apparently in this version of reality, if something innovative is presented in a slick TED Talk style demonstration then people will buy anything. (Okay, maybe it’s not that far-fetched.)

Impressive though it may be, SeeChange is a civil liberty nightmare, but no one raises concerns over its negative, even illegal, implications. It’s pitched by Eamon in altruistic terms, promoting the ability to keep every oppressive dictator honest once and for all, or use the power of our interconnectivity to find criminals, lost loved ones, and more, all in record time.

Eamon plays to the idea that living without secrets is liberating. It’s a keen play because it happens to be true. Secrets are oppressive, but Eamon’s propaganda is ultimately a half-truth. Why? Because secrets and privacy are two different things. The former is deceptive and potentially destructive while the latter is necessary, even healthy. Eamon obscures that distinction, and everyone just smiles.

How Watson’s Mae ends up playing into this whole dynamic is a stretch, too. I suspected how her fast ascent would be credibly validated…only to see not be validated in the slightest. The only thing keeping this remotely grounded is Hanks himself, who is nothing short of brilliant as the high tech spider spinning his world wide web.

Hanks astutely applies his own natural charm and personal integrity to an against-type villain role. It’s intensely eerie, even unsettling. The poignant presence of the late Bill Paxton, who plays Mae’s MS-afflicted father with unshowy naturalism, also reminds us about the tragic loss of this too-often underappreciated actor.

Begging to be adapted by David Fincher, The Circle didn’t settle for a second-tier freelancer. Ponsoldt has helmed some of the best independent films of the past five years (The Spectacular Now and Smashed among them), and he assembles a first-rate cast with some slick production values.

But when this increasingly ridiculous plot machine – riddled with “you’ve got to be kidding me” melodrama – finally ends in an abrupt “that’s it?” moment, you’re left dumbfounded by the reality that a surefire smart thriller with relevant thought-provoking themes has just been inexplicably hacked.

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