In 1995, a perfect piece of techno-alarmism was released in theaters, and America was never the same again. The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, predicted a world where your entire identity could be erased and re-written online, where hackers could create online backdoors into all of America’s security agencies, where you could use a website to have a pizza delivered to your door. The film was, at the time, dismissed as an absurd work of paranoia; these days, its prophecies sound extremely ho-hum. Sure, people now use Seamless instead of “Pizza.net,” but forecasting the future through cinema is never a perfect science.
Twenty-two years later comes James Ponsoldt’s The Circle, a new piece of cyber-horror to scoff at, one that predicts a future in which everyone will tie their lives into their online identities, and cameras will monitor our every move. Wait, I hear you say, that sounds eerily prescient! It should be—and yet, The Circle has absolutely no grasp on its own tone. It veers from insidious social commentary to wildly absurd comedy sometimes within the same conversation, warning of a world where we may use Facebook to vote, but also have microchips implanted in our children’s bones. As a satire, The Circle might have been worth a few giggles, but as a deadly serious drama, it’s laughable in an entirely different way.
The movie is based on a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers that presented its dystopic predictions as a sort of knowing fable. Meanwhile, the film, scripted by Eggers and Ponsoldt, has a much more grounded aesthetic. The Circle is an all-encompassing social network, essentially Facebook or Google or Twitter wrapped into one neat package. Its headquarters are a sprawling “campus,” not unlike Apple’s giant glass doughnut, and its employees never seem to leave, since they’re all having too much fun being best friends with one another. It’s all like an episode of Black Mirror, if Black Mirror made no effort whatsoever to be subtle.
Into this gilded cage walks Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a young go-getter who’s eager to please and otherwise lacking in personality. One character notes her overflowing idealism, and her parents (played by Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton) are salt-of-the-earth folks who seem gently suspicious of all this internet mumbo-jumbo. Mae gets a job at The Circle with the help of her high-powered friend Annie (Karen Gillan). Quickly enough, she’s climbing the social ladder, using her Circle phone to communicate with her Circle co-workers, attend Circle events, live on Circle housing, and enjoy Circle healthcare.
The whole situation seems vaguely sinister from minute one. The problem is, it’s hard to tell how much the movie agrees with that instant diagnosis. Tom Hanks plays Eamon Bailey, the co-founder of The Circle, and in his first appearance (a keynote address to employees), he introduces a new kind of camouflaged micro-camera that can be placed anywhere with ease, to monitor every corner of the planet. Hanks is well cast as an outwardly charming, folksy dad type, who presents the camera as a useful tool against oppression and police brutality. Of course, one can imagine some reasonable objections being raised to the idea of papering the globe in proprietary lenses. None arises from the audience, and there’s no sense of recrimination from the outside world.
The Circle wants its ominous reveal to be a slow build, but it does nothing to get the audience on board. As Mae is sucked in by Eamon’s vision of the future—one of “total transparency” where everyone not only should be using The Circle, but will also be mandated to—it’s difficult to sympathize with her abject naiveté, especially since Watson gives such a blank performance. Early on in the movie, she meets a mysterious co-worker (played by John Boyega) who seems to nurse doubts about the company, but it takes nearly an hour for her to even ask his name or some basic ethical questions about what this all-encompassing social network has planned.
Things eventually take a turn. But the long, goofy lead-up is largely told in keynote addresses and webinar sessions, where the dialogue sounds like a focus-grouped advertorial, and character motivations shift based on whatever obvious point Ponsoldt and Eggers want to make about the dangers of online media. Ellar Coltrane, so beguiling as the focus of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, is disarmingly wooden as Mercer, Mae’s ex-boyfriend and a stand-in for the virtues of an “unplugged” life. Patton Oswalt does some intense glowering as Eamon’s founding partner.
Much like The Net, maybe The Circle will one day be proven absolutely right about the future of our connected society. Maybe we will all get microchips in our bones, drink green fluids that monitor the pH levels of our stomach, and use Facebook to elect our leaders. And yet even if every moment of it is one day revealed to be startlingly accurate, this ridiculous film wouldn’t be any easier to appreciate in retrospect. Audiences might indeed be nervous about the future of the internet. But The Circle, in the end, has nothing remotely interesting to say about their fears.