“Don’t be evil” was Google’s old, readily teaseable motto. Now, knowing what most of us do about the corporations that run/monitor our mobile-mad lives — Uber was able to track people even after they deleted the app? — most of us would settle for “We try not to be evil” as a mantra for any aggressively intrusive big tech company.
The goal of the fictional social media behemoth in “The Circle,” however, isn’t earning your trust; it’s reconditioning you to a mandatory ever-sharing, secrecy-free citizenship. A sly riff on Orwellian themes in our willfully plugged-in age, “The Circle” is an adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 bestselling novel. And Eggers’ story of a young woman swallowed whole by an increasingly worrisome algorithm for the eradication of privacy certainly seemed ripe for a kind of smiling paranoia movie along the lines of “The Truman Show” or “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
What we’ve gotten instead, as directed by James Ponsoldt (“The End of the Tour”), is a middling, choppily edited mess. Despite appealing features, including stars Emma Watson and Tom Hanks (who morphs his patented affability into casually sinister, Jobs-ian salesmanship), “The Circle” never builds up a head of steam as either dark drama, modern satire or dystopian thriller.
Mae (Watson) is the proverbial lost twentysomething until connected friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands her a coveted entry level spot at The Circle in “customer experience.” There, she answers questions about the company’s signature TruYou software, which manages subscribers lives under one account and one password. Dazzled by the amenity-laden, recreationally packed Bay Area campus — although the first aerial view makes it look like a gray, donut-shaped prison — Mae warms to the gig, including the unsubtle pressure to be a full-throttle Circler: joining, befriending, sharing, posting constantly.
Easier to get behind is charismatic co-founder Eamon (Hanks) and his peppy, idealistic Dream Friday presentations to employees, especially when he frames the company’s new marble-sized, adhesive, hideable hi-res cameras and their inevitable ubiquity as a tool for global justice. It’s called SeeChange. Snappy, huh?
After she nearly drowns in an after-hours solo kayaking excursion, Mae goes full “transparent” — big cheers from the Dream Friday audience — allowing her life to be streamed 24 hours (save three minutes max for bathroom time) because, she now believes, “privacy is theft” and “secrets are lies.”
But she’s also drifting away from those close to her: a reclusive pal (Ellar Coltrane), her illness-challenged parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton) who quickly sour to their existence being viewed by millions. Even Annie turns bitter and neurotic about Mae’s growing popularity with Eamon and his henchman-looking COO, Tom (Patton Oswalt).
Mae’s Kool-Aid transformation isn’t handled very artfully, relying on abrupt shifts in Ponsoldt’s and Eggers’ screenplay, which is heavy on public reveals — usually with Mae and Eamon on stage at Dream Friday confabs — and light on the connective tissue that helps us understand her.
Watson is a naturally appealing actor, but Mae’s zero-to-60 conversion from cynical newbie to global superstar and aspiring totalitarian just isn’t convincing. Neither is John Boyega’s underwritten lurker, the disillusioned Circle co-founder — supposedly in hiding but freely wandering the campus — who initially tries to convince Mae his vision has been corrupted then is relegated to shaking his head at her from afar.
All the while, Danny Elfman’s gurgling-synth score works overtime to generate tension while the visuals haphazardly veer between indie drab and industrial shine.
Eventually, as Mae rises to become the Circle’s personable public face of encroaching corporate control, tragedy rears its head — again, not believably — and hurtles the narrative toward a conveniently corrective (and different from the book) ending. But with so many thinly drawn characters and a sputtering engine of suspense, it’s hardly the crackerjack denouement the movie needs.
“The Circle” is like a buggy app, something you want to work but is doomed to be remembered more as a missed opportunity than a memorably cautionary message for our times.
Rating: PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release