Emma Watson’s Stupid Tech Thriller
Emma Watson in Le Cercle.
The most of The circle playing ridiculously, thank goodness: if in ten years we look back and think, “yeah, they got it right,” we’ll be really screwed. We’ll probably still think the movie isn’t very good, though.
It’s named after a powerful tech company – Facebook with aspects of Apple and possibly Google. But think of Facebook because its hook is the community and its main product is a social interface app called TruYou. Emma Watson plays Mae, a young, ingenuous woman who lands a low-level but highly coveted job and marvels at the sunny and intrusive employees on her hilly grounds outside of San Francisco. They’re like bubbly little technicians from Stepford with camera phones pointed at everyone.
Dave Eggers adapted his novel with director James Ponsoldt, who did a good job with The spectacular now. The tone of it all was in one piece, as The circle is a tonal mess: part satire, part moralizing melodrama. A part is largely played, a subtle part, a large part overheated. There are still good times. It peaks very early on with the first appearance of Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey, the Mark Zuckerberg / Steve Jobs-like guru stepping out onto an almost naked stage and putting on a show that Mae watches with shining eyes. Really – I was wondering if the filmmakers put gel in it to make them shine so bright.
The theme of The circle is transparency versus privacy. On stage, Bailey explains that privacy is the enemy, that keeping an eye on everyone means dictators cannot violate human rights and children will be protected from abusers. (The plan, we learn, is to build sensors into children’s bones.) He considers keeping secrets a form of lying. He says: “Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better. Its employees are going wild.
Which raises at least two questions, the first is whether this is a compromise worth making – most people would say no, even if they give more and more information in exchange for convenience. The second is whether Bailey is philosophically sincere or some crazy power monopolist disguised as a social reformer. The best thing about Hanks’ performance is that he plays sincerity. And this is Tom Hanks, our father to all, we want to trust him. If Bailey is playing, he’s the best actor in the world. Of course, behind the scenes he has a somewhat stereotypical advertising partner, Tom Stenton, played by Patton Oswalt. But hey, even Mother Teresa needed public relations. Maybe Stenton is a necessary evil.
Maybe not. Does the company have to keep an eye on everything Mae does – her whereabouts, her hobbies, even a social review by her peers? She has another watcher: John Boyega as Ty, the inventor of TruYou, who roams buildings like the Phantom of the Circle, dropping moral and ethical judgments – and reminding Mae that corporate power grows. and remains unchecked. Poor Mae is influenced by him. She’s so torn up that she goes kayaking the San Francisco Bay in the middle of the fucking night and, in a poorly staged scene (it’s pretty clear she’s in a tank), almost drowns . She was saved, don’t you know, with the help of the Circle’s new ubiquitous surveillance system, SeeChange. Images of the rescue go viral and Mae is a star.
She also becomes a spokesperson for the company. Quickly – too quickly, scenes had to be cut – Mae becomes the most flamboyant proselyte in the Circle, pushing for less privacy, more surveillance. So The circle turns into a story of corruption, with a nice character sacrificed in a sequence that derails the film – literally and figuratively. The question arises: Will Mae be uncorrupted? Eggers ‘book goes one way, the movie is the exact opposite – although the ending here is confusing and smacks of desperation, with Hanks’ final line a sop to the audience and a coda that seems to undo what came before. (Is that supposed to be ironic? Probably. Who cares?) Watson, on the other hand, gives his features quite the workout. She’s very nice (the camera loves her), but she acts so hard that she gets boring.
The movie isn’t as bad as some of the early reviews suggested. (It was hidden from criticism until it opened at the Tribeca Film Festival, a madhouse with appearances by the director and stars.) It’s in the honorable tradition of the Elia Kazan-Budd Schulberg morality play. A face in the crowd. But it pales in comparison to the terribly creepy (and depressing) British TV series Black mirror, who finds more imaginative ways to represent our happy submission to technology.
On a sad note, the late Bill Paxton plays Mae’s father, who has MS, and it hurts to see him so weakened, even though he’s just playing. We’re already in shock from another untimely death this week: Jonathan Demme. welcome to What a shitty year: the sequel.