Friday, April 28, 2017

Tribeca ’17: The Circle

It is an online service that offers one-stop shopping for all the creepier aspects of online life, such as invasive social media, massive personal data collection, and obscenely smug TED Talks. Imagine a time when your privacy is constantly compromised by a tech giant that uses its liberal hippy-dippy corporate ethos to justify a terrifying not-so hidden agenda. Yes, it is the world of today presented as if it is the near future in James Ponsoldt’s The Circle (trailer here), which opens today in theaters following its premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Mae Holland is starting in whatever touchy-feely euphemism The Circle uses for customer service, but she has cause for optimism, because many in the Maoist-sounding “Gang of 40” started there as well. However, she will have to maintain her user feedback score and get better about integrating her social life into the company’s cult-like extracurricular lifestyle. Unfortunately, a post about her childhood friend Mercer inspires a rash of cyber-stalkings from coworkers labeling him a “deer-killer.”

Although somewhat unnerved by his woes, Holland has already drunk deeply from the Kool Aid at this point, especially when she becomes the poster child for the company’s “transparent” world view. Like a dystopian Big Brother contestant, Holland agrees to broadcast her life on The Circle around the clock, with only limited work-arounds for nature calls. This inevitably leads to fissures with her family and ultimately leads to tragedy.

It is all scary as heck, but none of what we see in the film seems speculative in a science fiction kind of way. The genie is already out of the bottle. Watching the privacy issues play out in The Circle is like revisiting the warnings of media manipulation in Sidney Lumet’s Network. We’re already there and beyond, but we can still appreciate the caustic wit of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay.

Ponsoldt and David Eggars’ adaptation of the latter’s novel lacks a similar edge, but it does offer insight into why we collectively so often knowingly and willingly facilitate the erosion of our own privacy, against our better judgement. Yet, Holland’s ultimate rebellion is not on behalf of privacy, but for its complete eradication on scrupulously equal terms. Arguably, what is most terrifying about The Circle is that it will not be seen as terrifying by millions of government-trusting, privacy and free speech-sacrificing millennials. This is especially true of the scheme Holland and charismatic company founder Eamon Bailey hatch to integrate elections into The Circle and make voting mandatory.

Casting Tom Hanks as Bailey, the Zennish overlord of The Circle, masterly subverts his Speilberg-and-apple pie image. Relative unknown Emma Watson is believably malleable as Holland, but she conspicuously struggles to carry the film as the on-screen-99%-of-the-time lead. On the other hand, John Boyega brings a nervy intelligence to the picture as morally-troubled Circle inventor Ty Laffite, but it is hard to understand why his character would collaborate with Holland’s ultimate plans. Still, Glenne Headley and the late, great Bill Paxton are quite touching as Holland’s confused mother and MS-stricken father. However, the breakthrough turn comes from scene-stealing Karen Gillan as Holland’s college friend Annie, a disillusioned and displaced Gang of 40 member.

There are moments in The Circle that will set your teeth on edge because they are so spot-on. The Circle “campus” is a hotbed of Orwellian doublespeak, embracing slogans like “privacy is theft” and “secrets are lies.” Unfortunately, it is not even clear whether The Circle shares our alarm. This is a provocative film that should not be summarily dismissed, but it suffers from a weak lead and a lack of clarity of purpose. Rather a hodgepodge of mismatched near-future dystopian tropes, The Circle opens today (4/28) in New York at the AMC Empire, following its premiere screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival.