Thriller ‘The Circle’ delivers a heavy-handed warning about technology

Emma Watson learns about life within The Circle.

Two stars

The Circle Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Rated PG-13. Now playing citywide.

Movies about the perils of technology often seem laughably alarmist only a few years later, and there’s a good chance that people will look back on The Circle in a short period of time and cringe at its representations of the future of social media and surveillance. But The Circle is pretty clumsy in its depiction of technology even from a present-day perspective, which makes its broadly cautionary tale about the dangers of handing too much control to a paternalistic corporation often hard to take seriously.

Pretty much from the moment that wide-eyed Mae Holland (Emma Watson) joins the Google/Facebook-like tech company The Circle, it’s obvious that the organization’s intents are sinister, from the cultish way that employees are “encouraged” to spend all their free time on the sprawling corporate campus, to the faux-friendly vibe of CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). So there’s little moral complexity to the story, in which Mae vaults from customer-service representative to the face of the company within a few short weeks, helping to push increasingly invasive “transparent” technology.

Eamon and his COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) couch all their Big Brother-style intrusions in progressive-friendly talk about increasing human rights and holding government officials accountable, but the only people fooled by that talk are the movie’s characters. Really, it’s mainly Mae who’s fooled, as friends played by Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane and John Boyega attempt to warn her away from becoming the mouthpiece for the totalitarian Circle. The company’s eventual plans are both far-fetched and disappointingly benign, compared to the true sci-fi dystopia that the movie occasionally seems on the verge of unleashing.

As a character, Mae is a bit of a blank slate, going from a skeptic to a true believer and back again without much in the way of motivation. Watson, with her shaky American accent, never quite gets a handle on Mae, and Mae’s friends come and go as the plot demands. Hanks should be the perfect choice to play an avuncular megalomaniac, but director and co-screenwriter James Ponsoldt (working from a novel by co-screenwriter Dave Eggers) never unleashes Hanks’ full potential for folksy villainy.

Ponsoldt, whose previous films (Smashed, The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) are all quiet interpersonal dramas, uses a few effectively flashy techniques to illustrate Mae’s immersion in technology, especially a cloud of constantly updated user comments that follow her once she starts broadcasting every moment of her life. But there are just as many awkward or miscalculated depictions of technological dependence, and many of the face-to-face interactions between characters are similarly stilted. Instead of striking an ominous note of warning, the movie limps toward a quasi-hopeful ending that resolves nothing, with as little conviction or resolve as its weak protagonist.

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