There are two ways to make technology terrifying. You can place it in the wrong hands — the rogue government agency, the power-hungry corporation, the monologuing supervillain. Or you can suggest that there are no right hands, that our machines are corrupting society from the bottom up.
The first approach gets you a gadget-driven action movie, a ’70s-style paranoid thriller, a Bourne or Bond film. The second approach gets you a dystopia, with the BBC anthology series Black Mirror being the most powerful recent example. In Mirror, the various brave new worlds of social-media tyranny have no villain, no mastermind, not even a Mustapha Mond to explain it all — just the crushing horror of realizing that we built this nightmare for ourselves, brick by brick and click by click.
The aspiration of The Circle, adapted from the novel of the same name by the Bay Area literary entrepreneur Dave Eggers, seems to be to take both approaches at once. On the one hand, it’s a movie that offers scenarios extending naturally from the world in which we live, placing its characters in a social-media panopticon just a touch more advanced than the current Facebook/Twitter/Google/Tinder nexus and implying that if this is a prison, it’s one we’ve chosen for ourselves.
But at the same time, The Circle wants to offer the (reassuring?) promise that the information age has a bad guy somewhere, atop the digital pyramid or deep inside the inner ring, who can be vanquished in a way that will make a difference to our fate. The only difficulty is recognizing him, because he might look like Tom Hanks.
Tom Hanks? Yes, him: In The Circle, he plays Eamon Bailey, a visionary Silicon Valley CEO with a cult of acolytes around him, a founder and innovator in the Steve Jobs mode. Except that instead of Jobs’s mix of zeal and cool, Bailey has the qualities that we associate with, well, Tom Hanks: a rumpled dad-like charm, a reassuring approachability, a touch of goofiness, an overwhelming air of decency. Which makes him a great choice for the part — just about the only great choice, sadly, that The Circle makes in its casting or its script.
Our heroine, Mae, played by Emma Watson, is a drifting Millennial working for a dreary collection agency whose life gets transformed when her pal Annie (Karen Gillan) sets her up with an interview for The Circle, a Silicon Valley behemoth whose main product, called “TruYou,” seems to combine various social-media platforms into one all-purpose way of online being that renders all the others obsolete.
Mae starts out as a “guppie,” a low-level employee working on the TruYou help desk, but she has connections higher up. Annie is part of the gang of 40, Bailey’s inner circle, so she sneaks Mae into the guru’s book-lined study for a peek at how the 0.000001 percent lives — and then, a little later, Mae starts making small talk with a handsome stranger (John Boyega of The Force Awakens) who turns out to be none other than Ty Lafitte, the legendary programmer who developed TruYou and now wanders The Circle’s campus looking mysterious and staring intently into his smartphone.
In the way of bad movies, Ty decides almost immediately that he can trust Mae with his sense that something is terribly rotten with the state of TruYou. This sentiment is echoed by her ex-boyfriend (Ellar Coltrane of Boyhood, unbelievably terrible), a Luddite type who fixes cars and makes antler chandeliers in a woodland cabin.
But despite what the men in her life are telling her, Mae’s skepticism about her employer melts when The Circle turns out to be not just cool but lifesaving: It helpfully brings her ailing father (the late Bill Paxton) onto its comprehensive health plan, and its snazziest new technology, a marble-sized camera that can be planted anywhere, helps the Coast Guard rescue her when she takes a reckless nighttime kayaking trip in San Francisco Bay.
It’s that incident that really brings her to Bailey’s attention, at which point she gets made over as The Circle’s leading evangelist — going “full transparency” by wearing a camera 24/7 and embracing the company’s various creepy-sounding credos (“Secrets are lies,” “Knowing is good but knowing everything is better”). Meanwhile, Bailey is moving forward with a plan to link voter registration seamlessly with your TruYou profile and let people cast their votes online, Annie is melting down from some unexplained stress, Ty is skulking in the background, and it seems clear that at some point we’re going to learn the sinister plan beneath all this high-minded talk about a better world . . .
. . . but alas, we never do. Mae has the inevitable crisis of conscience, the predictable encounter with the cost of full transparency, and with Ty’s help leads a rebellion against Bailey. But the movie never clarifies exactly what The Circle’s leaders are trying to do with all their power, which makes its ultimate message more than a little murky. Is the problem that Hanks’s guru is wicked and bent on using everyone’s data for nefarious purposes? Or is the online panopticon itself inevitably dystopian, inhuman, oppressive? Would a life lived on TruYou be okay if control of the network were more decentralized, if there were no God-like gurus watching from above?
Admittedly, there are movies that could make a virtue of this ambiguity. But The Circle is not one of them: With its general clumsiness and unsubtlety, it’s a movie that needs to deliver some kind of plot payoff, some kind of unexpected conspiracy that justifies the time we’ve spent with Mae and Bailey and the antler-artist. It doesn’t, so you can skip it; there’s probably something much more fascinating in your Facebook feed right now.