Hey, did you know that technology is a double-edged sword? That all of the byte-sized computing power that’s supposed to liberate us may also be enslaving us? This is the earth-shattering revelation at the heart of The Circle — a disappointingly glib corporate conspiracy thriller starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. It’s a movie that desperately wants to be timely and relevant, warning us about the Brave New World threats we all face when it comes to privacy, surveillance, and freedom. But it’s so cartoony and ham-fisted it sabotages its own argument.
Adapted from Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel by Eggers himself and director James Ponsoldt (2015’s far better The End of the Tour), The Circle is especially dispiriting considering its top-flight cast. Watson plays Mae Holland, a fresh-faced wage slave who has a soul-sucking job answering customer complaints for the water company, a crappy beater car that breaks down, and a father with MS (Bill Paxton, standing out from the grim surroundings in his final big-screen role). She’s the kind of naïve babe in the woods that paranoid thrillers like this one throw into the deep end without a life preserver. In case we couldn’t immediately tell that she’s not your typical technology-obsessed millennial, her phone’s ring tone is the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” and her childhood friend (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) gives impassioned speeches against social media and handcrafts artisanal chandeliers out of deer antlers.
Mae’s best friend, Annie (Karen Gillan), offers her a way out. She manages to get her a dream job interview at the futuristic tech company where she works: The Circle. Think Apple run by Dr. Evil. After a quirky interview, which Mae aces, she gets the gig and soon finds herself walking the manicured corporate campus where there’s a constant smorgasbord of yoga classes, bocce courts, and trampolines — not to mention Beck concerts. It’s like Shangri La. Of course, the second we see the Big Ideas-spouting CEO (Hanks’ Eamon Bailey) prowling the stage of the corporate auditorium like Steve Jobs crossed with the Big Bad Wolf, we know that, yes, this is all too good to be true. (Even in a bad movie, Hanks can’t help but be charismatic.) The company is an Orwellian techno-cult preaching to glassy-eyed twentysomething zombies who are only too willing to hand over their privacy for a thumbs up or winking emoji. And Mae is so seduced by having a good job, a good salary, and medical coverage for her sick father, that she buys in. She literally signs over her free will, agreeing to live transparently and be on camera 24 hours a day.
All of this is handled so broadly that it’s hard to buy what the film’s ostensibly selling. It’s so obvious that Hanks and his second in command at The Circle (Patton Oswalt, who’s ominous character might as well be named Snidely Whiplash) are up to no good that there’s nowhere for the film to go with any shred of surprise. Ponsoldt and Eggers are making a satire, but they don’t seem to understand that good satire requires a light touch rather than a heavy hand. As Mae gets sucked deeper and deeper into The Circle (more Kool-Aid, please!), she becomes less and less convincing and sympathetic. If we can all see how baldly nefarious The Circle is, why can’t she? And if she can’t, then why should we care about her? Naturally, there comes a moment in the film when Mae will wake up and see through the lies and all of Eamon’s pseudo-compassionate visionary doublespeak. But by then, it’s way too late for us to care. The Circle is a movie wrestling with real ideas we should all be concerned about, but it’s doing it with one arm tied behind its back. C–