There’s an old saying that says a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. “The Circle,” a new Emma Watson, Tom Hanks’ thriller updates the message for the cyber age. "Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better," is the chilling message.
Based on the Dave Eggers bestseller of the same name, “The Circle” stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young woman who lands a gig at The Circle, a social media company with the influence of Apple and Facebook combined. It’s high tech glamour with a human touch, the chaos of the web made elegant. When Mae’s father falls ill her health coverage is extended to include her extended family. “You are a valued member of the Circle,” says the Zuckerbergesque company head and co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). “We care about everybody you care about.”
As she moves up the ranks Bailey convinces her to take part in a radical test. “Mae,” he asks, “do you think you behave better or worse when you are being watched?” It is a grand social experiment that sees her observed on-line every minute of the day via a new, lightweight, wireless portable camera. On the surface it’s a utopian idea, a way to make people better—“When we are our best selves,” says Bailey, “there isn’t a problem we can’t solve.”—that soon has some unexpected consequences.
When her co-worker Ty (John Boyega) warns her that “all the information, everything broadcast, recorded and seen is stored there and they can use it however they want,” she realizes the possibilities of a surveillance culture.
“The Circle” is a snapshot not of today but of two years ago. It’s almost impossible to tell a dystopian or cautionary cyber tale when Russian hackers are throwing American elections and your laptop is already spying on you and likely has been for years. The film feels as current as it's musical guest star Beck, a musician old enough to be Watson's father.
It does raise questions about the usage of personal data for the gain of personal wealth, the role of technology in government—“The government needs us more than we need them,” snarls The Circle’s COO (Patton Oswalt)—and the nature and importance of privacy in the wild west of the internet but it doesn’t add much to the conversation. The messages are earnest, but Watson’s Mae is a passive player, a shallow character too gullible and easily influenced to maintain our interest. The solution to her moral quandary feels better suited to a Facebook post than the climax to a movie.
While it is a pleasure to see Bill Paxton in his last big screen performance, “The Circle” often feels like an Exposition-A-Thon, a message in search of a story.