Review: The Circle loops itself into nonsense

Questions about privacy and surveillance abound, but no fresh ideas are forthcoming.

the circle, review: the circle

THE GOOD: Tom Hanks delivers an aw-shucks take on Steve Jobs.
THE BAD: Plot lacks believability; raises questions but doesn’t delve into them.

It’s getting increasingly popular to mock and criticize the technology industry, if pop entertainment is any indicator. In recent years, shows such as Silicon Valley and even silly films such as The Internship have pointed out how much there is to ridicule about modern tech culture. And it’s definitely fertile ground.

The Circle, a new drama starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, takes a more serious tone by raising questions about privacy and corporate overreach through the lens of the eponymous company, itself an obvious stand-in for Google and Facebook.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t raise them in a logical or believable way, nor are the questions particularly new or surprising. And never mind answers, because there aren’t any here.

Watson is Mae Holland, a millennial struggling to make ends meet when she lucks into a customer service job at the tech behemoth. Hanks is Eamon Bailey, the affable head of the company with a penchant for surfing and delivering mirth-filled speeches to his assembled workers.

As a company, The Circle is a social media hub and search network all in one. There’s evidence it has its figurative fingers in a thousand different pies, with employees using Circle phones and tablets and communicating across its various channels. It’s what a merger of Google and Facebook would probably look like.

There are hints that the company is also something of a cult, providing for virtually every need employees might have while also encouraging them to voluntarily partake in mandatory weekend socializing. As with some real tech companies, The Circle doesn’t seem to want its workers to ever leave work.

The plot thickens when Bailey unveils his latest product, a marble-sized camera that can be stuck surreptitiously anywhere and everywhere, giving The Circle eyes and ears into the lives of potentially everyone on the planet whether they know it or not.

The cameras are connected via satellite and deliver real-time analytics, so they literally give the company omnipresence and – the implication is – omnipotence thereafter.

Bailey insists this is all being done in the name of transparency, to make the world a better place – which is something we hear from technology companies all the time right before they violate some law.

Holland gets on board with the plan by volunteering to become the first civilian to become totally “transparent” in wearing one of the cameras 24/7, except when she goes to the bathroom. The film goes south pretty quickly from there.

There are some egregious breaks from reality that are readily apparent to anyone with even a cursory familiarity with how the tech industry works.

For one thing, Bailey unveils his new camera to an audience of staff only, which is nonsense. Such a major product launch would be done with much media fanfare.

He also tosses the cameras out to audience members like they’re candy, even though their official release is still a ways away. There’s no way that would happen – companies guard their upcoming products as if they are nuclear secrets.

Holland is also allowed to broadcast everything she sees and experiences within The Circle’s mega-campus, including internal meetings, which is just nuts. Any company willing to expose its inner workings to such a degree wouldn’t last very long, or have grown to such size in the first place.

It’s equally baffling that no one affiliated with the company ever seems to question any of the product ideas brought up.

When Holland suggests making Circle accounts mandatory for voting, Bailey simply eggs her on. Tech companies do routinely push social and legal boundaries, but they also do tend to employ individuals at the highest levels to provide some sober counter-commentary on more controversial ideas (except Uber – that’s one unhinged company).

Watson is engaging in her role, but her motivation is never clear. One moment, she’s mocking the cultyness of the company, the next she’s volunteering for its experiments. She also runs off for some dangerous night-time kayaking without any real explanation.

Her big decision at the end of the movie is impossible to see coming because we have no idea where her thinking is at any given time. All told, she’s a tough character to sympathize with. It doesn’t help that she’s evidently so easy for her superiors to control, until she isn’t.

John Boyega pops up as a mysterious company insider, but his motivation is also unclear. He’s a long-time employee with an apparent axe to grind, but he sticks around The Circle anyway.

He also seems to be in a different story, with his scenes parlaying a conspiracy theory thriller vibe that’s at odds with the rest of the film. You almost expect to see Cancer Man and Scully to show up.

The Circle touches on a host of themes – the cultishness of Silicon Valley, the limits of personal privacy, the encroachment of tech giants into government, the modification of behaviour when being watched, the hypocrisy of company leaders who espouse openness but maintain secrets themselves.

But it doesn’t delve into any of these in greater depth, which is unfortunate. Any one of them would have made for a fascinating commentary if explored more, but instead we get Holland and company skimming the surface of conversations that have already been had elsewhere.

The time is indeed ripe for pop entertainment to start suggesting solutions to our modern technological problems and fortunately we have the likes of the excellent Black Mirror doing so. The Circle, however, just ends up going around in a loop with no real contribution to the conversation.

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