As "The Circle" envisions it, technology's dystopian near-future is already here.
The movie, which opened Friday in the US, imagines a world where the mightiest tech company cajoles us to willingly abandon privacy. As the megacorp embarks on moonshots to promote democracy, protect human rights and provide digital convenience on steroids, a few characters suspect it's covering up sinister motives, like crushing adversaries or accumulating wealth.
No. Freaking. Way.
Don't fault the filmmakers if that revelation feels tame. The objective of a tech thriller shouldn't be an award for peering most presciently into our digital downfall. For mainstream viewers, "The Circle" likely provides an entertaining critique of where tech could take us. But to the tech savvy, many of the movie's dark prognostications feel pretty familiar.
The upside? Tech geeks can still relish playing "Where's Waldo?" for real-life tech references.
In "The Circle," "Harry Potter" vet Emma Watson plays Mae, a young woman rescued from the drudgery of temp jobs when she's hired at the Circle, the world's most progressive tech company.
After one of the Circle's products saves her life, the company's leader, played by Tom Hanks, recruits Mae for an experimental project. She's the first person to "go transparent," sharing and broadcasting every facet of her life, save for three-minute breaks to the toilet.
Dave Eggers, the author of the 2013 novel on which the movie is based, has trumpeted how little he researched Silicon Valley, but director James Ponsoldt took the opposite approach. He and his crew visited tech campuses and consulted experts to capture the industry's culture.
"It's present-day science fiction," Anthony Bregman, one of the producers of "The Circle," said in an interview on the red carpet for the film's premiere Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. Just this month, he said, live broadcasts of homicides on Facebook felt eerily true to the world of the movie, in which a character's death is streamed live.
Real-life tech references in the movie aren't meant as veiled accusations.
Hanks' Eamon Bailey, for example, is the company's "public-facing visionary." Earlier this week, Hanks joked with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about playing a diabolical tech genius with a beard. "I played you! I'm not in as good of shape, I didn't exercise or eat as well, but I played you," he said.
But Bailey isn't channeling a single tech figure. He also has the onstage persona of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (down to employees taking snapshots with aluminum-colored tablets adorned by glowing white logos). Bailey's proclamations about the Circle curing all disease and unlocking human potential could have been cribbed from the News Feed posts of Facebook leader Mark Zuckerberg.
Sometimes the movie uses ambiguity to keep the audience asking questions. In the climax, Mae turns the Circle's facade of transparency against its leaders. In doing so, she pulls a Julian Assange, but the movie leaves it ambiguous whether she is more akin to the Nobel-peace-prize-nominated WikiLeaks circa 2010 or the presidential-campaign-meddling WikiLeaks of 2016.
On the nose
Other actors in the film drew from specific points of reference. Actress Karen Gillan used reports about Amazon to better understand her character, Annie. A longtime friend of Mae, Annie is part of the Circle's executive elite, delivering inhuman productivity.
To get inside Annie's head, Gillan relied on a New York Times 2015 expose about Amazon, she said. That report was criticized by the company and the Times' public editor as unfair, but the portrait of an unforgiving tech giant with intense employee expectations helped Gillan understand Annie's breaking point. "That was quite similar in the Circle, especially with my character, who is on a lot of Adderall all the time just trying to stay awake," she said.
Even when one of the references is on-the-nose, the filmmakers demur. The Circle's campus design, for example, will look familiar to anyone who has seen aerial renderings of the Apple "spaceship" headquarters.
"Whether anybody is accusing Apple of the same ambition [as the Circle], that's not for me to say," Bregman, the producer, said. (Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon didn't respond to messages seeking comment.)
Still, for tech geeks, half the fun of "The Circle" is playing spot-the-tech-reference, such as:
"The Circle" doesn't get everything right. At times, a superficial understanding about the internet -- a criticism of the book -- seeps through to the movie as well. Characters throw out terms like "in the cloud" similar to how your uncle who wears a hip-holster for his phone might. It's smart-sounding tech shorthand but is applied in contexts that don't make precise sense.
To our society's credit, when abuse by tech giants comes to light, we generally respond with outrage rather than the indifference of "The Circle." But at the premiere during an audience Q&A, Hanks related his own lesson from the film, while satirizing how we can mock the behavior of movie characters only to live out the same actions ourselves.
"When you see someone on stage in front of a great group of people being incredibly charming, do not trust that man!" he warned. Ever the showman, Hanks strutted back and forth, ironically enacting the exact behavior he railed against.
And the audience ate it up, with laughter and applause.
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Emma Watson becomes the mascot for a new wave of privacy-eroding web services in James Ponsoldt's adaptation of Dave Eggers' 2013 novel, co-starring Tom Hanks.
James Ponsoldt's The Circle, a high-gloss imagining of how current trends might soon lead to the actual and total end of privacy, makes its Tribeca premiere on a day whose morning news reported that a man in Thailand had live-streamed himself killing his infant daughter. Recent weeks have seen border guards demanding total access to travelers' social media accounts; Congress just told internet service providers it isn't illegal to sell their customers' private data.
That is to say, we probably already live in a scarier world, filled with stranger horrors, than the one The Circle presents as a cautionary tale. Given the speed and unpredictability of change in this arena, it's reasonable to wonder if a big-budget feature film, much less one based on a four-year-old novel (by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote this adaptation's screenplay), can hope to speak to the needs of the moment. In its quicker-turnaround, nugget-sized parables, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror TV series may be better equipped.
Yet it would be absurd if the movies didn't address the massive experiment humanity is undertaking, and this film — with its big stars and easily digested moral dilemmas — is the kind of "issue"-inflected entertainment that could stimulate some thought about the services we use and which use us online. In any event, the pic should mark a commercial step up for Ponsoldt, who has enjoyed critical support for indies like The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now but will now have his first crack at Middle America.
Emma Watson plays Mae, a trusting soul just starting an entry-level job at Circle, a tech giant with similarities to many companies, primarily Facebook. Its innovation is TruYou — a single-identity, one-password solution for everything you do online, which eliminates anonymity along the way. "The chaos of the web made simple," as she puts it. Run by dual chiefs — stiff, biz-minded Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) and folksy, Jobsian Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) — the company is held in awe by the public and revered by the Kool-Aid drinkers employed there.
Early scenes of Mae trying to adjust to Circle's corporate culture are none too subtle about the expectations that are thrust upon her with a smile. Any customer evaluation that isn't 100 percent favorable is cause for concern; all those evening and weekend parties are totally optional and "just for fun," but your absence will be noted. And what do you mean you spent the weekend kayaking? I didn't see any posts about that on your feed.
Mae gets the job just in time to see Eamon announce his latest gadget: a marble-sized camera with a wireless satellite connection, which can be planted secretly all over the world to record and upload high-def, 24/7 video. In the grandiose way of Silicon Valley visionaries, Bailey presents this as a tool that will put an end to human rights violations in repressive countries. "If it happens, we'll know," he says reassuringly. His employees cheer like victims of mass brainwashing.
An incident involving some of those cameras embarrasses Mae and easily could lead to her losing this job before she even settles in. Instead, it prompts her to prove herself a true believer. She volunteers for Full Transparency, wearing a body cam all day and letting anyone in the world watch her live her life. Of course, this means putting all one's loved ones on camera as well, and Mae's parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his last performances) fall victim to this in a fairly predictable way. One of the things The Circle gets right on multiple occasions is that, once one has bought into a technology like this, the problems it creates are invitations not to abandon it but to seek further technological solutions.
Mae is soon not just a believer but a trailblazer, proposing ways for The Circle to grow that even its executives haven't imagined. Her transformation disgusts childhood friend Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane) and inspires jealousy in buddy Annie (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who's Amy Pond), who got her the job. But it presumably is most troubling to John Boyega's Ty, the man who invented TruYou but never intended it to become the privacy-destroying beast it now is. Ty still works on the Circle campus, but is an outsider, lurking on the fringes of parties and staff meetings. He befriends Mae shortly after she's hired, and shows her glimpses of the company's Big Brotherish future. But he more or less disappears from the film, staying onscreen just enough to keep it from being weird when he's called upon for a little deus ex machina action at the end.
As Mae finds herself pulled along in the current of her bosses' world-domination strategy, certain plot points might seem far-fetched, but only until you think of similar things that have already happened, similar liberties that have been happily surrendered by users of popular networks. Still, the resolution of her growing moral qualms is problematic.
We already know that Mark Zuckerberg doesn't want us knowing as much about his personal life as he knows about ours, that Eric Schmidt would not willingly show you his Google search history. But Ponsoldt and Eggers treat the hypocrisy of Circle chiefs Bailey and Stenton like a secret to be unveiled triumphantly, then end the film with optimistic pronouncements that first sound like ironic threats, then seem to about-face and greet a surveillance state as if it's utopia. The film's final message isn't as difficult to grapple with as the world we're actually living in, but that doesn't make it easy.
Production companies: Playtone, Likely Story, 1978 Films
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Gary Goetzman, James Ponsoldt
Executive producers: Stefanie Azpiazu, Peter Cron, Evan Hayes, Russell Levine, Federica Sainte-Rose, Ron Schmidt, Steve Shareshian, Marc Shmuger, Sally Wilcox
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Costume designer: Emma Porter
Editors: Lisa Lassek, Franklin Peterson
Composer: Danny Elfman
Casting director: Avy Kaufman
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Gala)
PG-13, 109 minutes