‘The Circle’ is like a so-so episode of ‘Black Mirror’

The Circle
Credit: STX Entertainment

‘The Circle’
James Ponsoldt
Stars: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks
Rating: PG-13
2 (out of 5) Globes

Essentially a so-so episode of “Black Mirror,” “The Circle” is a 10-minutes-from-now dystopia about a cool tech company that’s found a way to get people to freely, even happily sign away their privacy, rather than have an evil empire take it from them. If that sounds like Apple or Google, then that’s a bingo. Adapted from Dave Eggers’ novel by Eggers himself, its points are important and timely, yet also painfully obvious. It’s the kind of movie that makes not-very-bright people say, “It really makes you think.”  

Our guide into this early 21st century hellscape is Mae (Emma Watson), a shy everybody who winds up at said company. Their m.o. is unifying all tech services — from social media to e-mail to, one day, they hope, taxes, even voting — into one helpful Internet blob. The CEO is played by Tom Hanks under a faux-cuddly salt-and-pepper beard and clad in casual half-zip sweaters. (He’s an American with the fancy name of Eamon, so you know he’s evil.) Mae starts out in customer service (sorry: “Customer Experience”), and she’s initially freaked out by a staff of millennials who live on company grounds like gravity bong-hoisting undergrads and guilt-trip her when she dares go kayaking alone without alerting the entire Information Superhighway.

Mae’s mid-film about-face, from wallflower to the company’s chirpy, latently fascistic public mascot, doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps it worked better on the page. “The Circle” has the feel of a fable, where broad characters and their undermotivated actions can be excused as part of selling a homily. But the film version has been directed, by “The Spectacular Now”’s James Ponsoldt, as a drama with an axe to grind. It’s not quite a satire, as a satire would be more cutting and also funnier. Instead it’s more grounded, more sincere — because nothing hides a lack of real ideas better than an air of sincerity.

There are jokes, though, some of them funny, even the ones that are a bit on-the-nose. When Mae weaponizes her followers to target oppressive regimes across the globe, she caps it off by saying, “I want to thank everyone who sent frowns to the government there.” And once Mae becomes the first person to broadcast her every second across the World Wide Web, the screen fills with pop-up comments from her millions of followers. Look quickly and you’ll see some of them bear decent, random yuks. (“I’m eating cheese from a year ago.” “My girlfriend just dumped me.”) More thought went into crafting those one-liners than anywhere else in “The Circle.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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