The core of “The Circle” is a dumb movie trying to be smart. The premise begs to provoke contentious debate around privacy laws in an age of boundless innovation, but it can’t seem to find steady footing in that dialogue, in part because it lacks a substantial means of asking the right questions.
Young brainiac Mae (Emma Watson) scores a plumb job at technology empire The Circle, a palatial Bay Area company developing cutting-edge video technology at the behest of the smiley CEO Bailey (Tom Hanks). With time, Mae becomes immersed in a scheme to develop live-streaming video with lightweight cameras at a low cost, and eventually signs up to wear one of the devices 24/7. As she transforms her life into a 21st century Truman Show, with millions of online observers commenting on her existence in real-time, Mae’s trapped by the powerful ramifications of the technology and the potential dangers they pose for both her life and society at large. But by the time she gets to that point, it’s a wonder that such an alleged brainiac didn’t see it coming.
That’s the essence of “The Circle,” a well-intentioned technological thriller that pivots between creepy dystopian possibilities and a sincere meditation on present-day challenges, and keeps losing its way. Based on a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, the movie has been directed by James Ponsoldt with the genial air of his far sturdier character studies, particularly his coming-of-age drama “The Spectacular Now,” but that gentle touch underserves the darker narrative on display here. Ponsoldt is on steadier ground when depicting Mae’s troubled relationship with her parents, particularly as her father struggles from multiple sclerosis, and the platonic friendship she enjoys with longtime pal and analog-minded Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, who may as well be playing his “Boyhood” character a few years down the road).
In any case, “The Circle” doesn’t have much use for this pedestrian backdrop aside from something to care about beyond pure technological progress once her job really takes off. Early on, she’s guided around the high-tech compound by coworker Annie (Karen Gillan), who leads her to a hyperbolic presentation about the company’s video platform delivered by Bailey to his fawning staff with Steve Jobsian charm. Standing before a massive screen that displays clandestine video around the world, he celebrates a bright future for the company with the ability to change the world, and his team applauds in approval at every cue, like some kind of Silicon Valley version of the Peoples Temple.
This might make for a compelling window into corporate manipulation if “The Circle” didn’t suffer from a severely underwritten scenario that often borders on accidental parody. When the company laps up Bailey’s empty mantras (“sharing is caring”) — and, once Mae gets promoted, her some of her own (“secrets are lies”) — it raises the question of how a bunch of mindless sheep could wind up populating a seemingly beloved technology empire, as well as how Mae herself could be so brilliant and vulnerable at once. But the movie world never congeals enough to provide a coherent answer.
Needless to say, Mae gets a little too enamored of the task at hand, and in due time she’s wearing a small camera pinned to her shirt and has morphed into an online celebrity. Ponsoldt follows her digitized life as she’s constantly surrounded by floating text from viewer comments, an evolved version of the interactivity that has overtaken live video in the age of Facebook Live and Periscope. In fact, it’s so similar to existing technologies that the original material, released four years before the movie, shows its age. “The Circle” is less a cautionary tale about the near future than an embellished vision of the present that’s just a hair behind the times.
Still, Ponsoldt remains a talented filmmaker with an eye for textured drama, and “The Circle” develops some modicum of intrigue over Mae’s divided mindset. The pensive score maintains a sense of soul-searching throughout, while the lush Bay Area visuals strike an intriguing contrast with the high-tech compound where Mae does her work. Coming off of the remarkable two-hander “The End of the Tour,” Ponsoldt remains an actor’s director: Watson takes the subject matter dead seriously, and her frantic, stern delivery hints at the possibilities of an active mind struggling to express itself with the right words. Hanks projects an eerie calm, which makes him ideally suited for the movie’s Big Brother role, and Patton Oswalt is a natural fit as the scheming right-hand man. Even John Boyega, as a company defector who’s tasked with the thankless role of playing the guru to Mae as she grows skeptical of her employers, maintains an air of intensity that suits the grim scenario.
But “The Circle” never resolves its tone. Recent years have seen a proliferation of deep-dive narratives on the information age, from the psychological thriller territory of “Mr. Robot” to the parodic extremes of “Silicon Valley.” Ponsoldt’s project is stuck in between those two extremes. On the one hand, it’s an Orwellian drama about surveillance society; at the same time, it’s a sincere workplace drama about young adulthood that shoehorns in some techno-babble for the sake of deepening its potential.
The movie’s concept calls to mind Paul Verhoeven, who may have been a better fit for navigating this peculiar blend of real-world anxieties and futuristic possibilities. To date, Ponsoldt doesn’t have a subversive bone in his filmography, and “The Circle” constantly evades the twisted nature of the material. Only the closing scenes hint at a sharper concept — and allow Mae the opportunity to take control of her situation — but they arrive at the end of a very long and cheesy road that often operates like a sci-fi B-movie rather than anything more profound.
Unlike “The End of the Tour,” in which Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg spent an entire movie making compelling observations about creativity, “The Circle” constantly muddles its ideas. This marks the second Hanks/Eggers collaboration after the similarly misconceived “A Hologram for the King,” and together they suggest that Eggers’ whimsical plotting doesn’t naturally translate into the kind of idealism that Hanks movies tend to embody.
But the movie’s underlying problem is that it’s a study of technology by luddites that offers a thin assessment of the subject at hand. Time and again, Mae and her peers repeat the same half-formed conceits about privacy and transparency, the paradoxes of a society both liberated and constrained by boundless exposure, and basically everything you can glean from your average Edward Snowden lecture. Even as it focuses on why information just wants to be free, “The Circle” is stuck in a loop.
“The Circle” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It opens theatrically on April 28.