Review: ‘The Circle’ explores our sci-fi suspicions of social media

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Circle' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Few things are as ripe for sci-fi suspicion as our obsession with social media, making many of us think twice about the adage “sharing is caring.”

It made for a 2013 page-turner that drew dystopian comparisons to “Brave New World” and “1984.”

Now, David Eggers’ “The Circle” arrives on the big screen as a sci-fi thriller with a star-studded cast, though it’s being received like another Tom Hanks book adaptation “Cloud Atlas” — with a shrug.

Set in the near future, an ambitious young woman, Mae (Emma Watson), is ecstatic after being hired to work for the world’s largest social media company, The Circle. Company founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) urges her to participate in a groundbreaking experiment, but little by little, she realizes she’s caught in an ethical dilemma sacrificing not only her own privacy but that of the entire world.

Sharing a name with IBM’s celebrity super computer, Watson is believable as the company’s bright new viral star, amassing 24.5 million Twitter followers from millennials who grew up with her in “Harry Potter,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “Beauty and the Beast.” We can also buy her leading a global revolution, having served as the United Nations’ Women Goodwill Ambassador.

Meanwhile, Hanks is perfectly cast as the charismatic tech magnate. Unlike Michael Fassbender’s abrasive “Steve Jobs” (2015), Hanks’ likable, everyman reputation provides the perfect false sense of security for his manipulative tech talks. “Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better. Without secrets, we can finally realize our potential,” he says with the hypocrisy of his own shady secrets. It’s refreshing to see Hanks play a baddie, the closest being his gangster in “Road to Perdition” (2002).

Similarly, comedian Patton Oswalt plays against type as Hanks’ co-founder, leading a supporting cast of inspired choices. Karen Gillan (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) evolves from pride to jealousy as Mae’s mentor, while John Boyega (“The Force Awakens”) finds brief chemistry as a workplace love interest.

On the home front, Mae receives healthy skepticism from her private parents, played by Glenne Headly (“Dick Tracy”) and the late Bill Paxton (“Titanic”) in his final role. As Paxton struggles to lift his arm to portray his character’s multiple sclerosis, it’s heartbreaking to watch knowing his real-life fate.

Most skeptical of all is Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer, played by Ellar Coltrane (“Boyhood”), who you’ll remember delivered an anti-technology rant at the end of “Boyhood.” He gets many such moments in “The Circle,” only they feel much more forced, while his biggest plot moment is spoiled by the trailers.

Co-written by Eggers and director James Ponsoldt, the script has many such moments that scream Hollywood heavy-handedness when a bit of nuance would have spoke volumes. However, to their credit, the writers lay out all of the viable reasons The Circle founders are able to convince so many folks to drink the Kool-Aid of “total transparency,” selling it as an agent for human rights when it’s actually an agent of “soylent,” which is referenced several times in homage to “Soylent Green” (1973).

As a director, Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”) teams with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan”) to mine visual flair from the tech world. Text messages pop up on screen like “House of Cards,” digital streams are superimposed like “Dear Evan Hansen,” and hidden cameras create a voyeuristic quality. Beneath it all, composer Danny Elfman (“Edward Scissorhands”) weaves an uneasy theme, while Lenachka delivers a creepy cover of Hall & Oates’ “Private Eyes.”

At its best, “The Circle” echoes elements of “Minority Report” (2002), tapping the same production designer Gerald Sullivan for state-of-the-art crime prevention; “The Truman Show” (1998), as Mae becomes an internet reality-show star; “The Social Network” (2010), as social media inventors push moral boundaries; and “Her” (2013), warning against an interactive future that’s not too far off.

But while its themes of Privacy vs. Transparency are timely, the message is undercut by a cop-out final scene that tries to have it both ways, leaving us questioning the takeaway. Are we supposed to despise our loss of privacy? Or are we supposed to embrace it? We’re never quite sure, because the entire film carries an anti-technology tone, only for the resolution to suddenly suggest otherwise.

The ending of the book took a far more cynical approach, having Mae turn her back on John Boyega’s character in sell her soul to The Circle co-founders. The film should have had the guts to stick with this originally intended ending, charting a tragic character arc with a Michael Corleone style finish.

Or, if you absolutely had to have a happy ending — as Hollywood often does — the final scene should have been Mae returning to her love of kayaking in the San Francisco Bay, at peace with nature and unplugged from the tech dangers. Instead, drones swoop down to show she’s still in The Circle. We guess the message is “everything in moderation,” but the film needs more screen time to sell this.

In the end, it’s a fascinating experience, posing lots of powerful questions, but never answering them. The definition of “hand-wringing” is “to worry about something but not do anything about it.” That pretty much sums up “The Circle.” It captures the zeitgeist, but isn’t sure what it wants to say about it.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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