If you’ve looked at a newspaper, magazine or web site within the past, oh, 15 years, you probably know that Internet privacy is an issue of massive concern to all of us. Now there’s an almost wholly pointless movie about it (one that isn’t Oliver Stone’s Snowden): In The Circle, Emma Watson plays Mae, a young go-getter who eagerly takes a job at a prestigious technology and social-media company. The Circle, as the company is called, takes pride in collecting heaps of personal information about everybody and processing it analytically—“all to serve you better!” as slick-casual corporate honcho Bailey (Tom Hanks) puts it in a dynamic TED Talk-style presentation to his hundreds of gung-ho, glassy-eyed young employees.
The company is about to launch a miniature camera that can be placed anywhere, to record anything—basically, it’s an all-seeing eyeball with some stickum on the back. The idea is that constant surveillance—“transparency,” Bailey calls it—makes all human beings more honest, accountable and responsible. Ergo, this gewgaw will make human beings better citizens and the world a better place. It’s not long before eager-beaver Mae, having quaffed a deep draft of the company Smart Water, volunteers to wear one of these little visual tattle-tales 24/7—OK, not while she’s in the bathroom—to prove to the world that this new technology is the best thing to happen to democracy since a bunch of villagers showed up for a town hall in ancient Athens.
In adapting Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name, director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour, The Spectacular Now) raises plenty of ideas that we should all be deeply concerned about. Once they’re raised, he has no idea what to do with them. The picture appears to be building toward some cathartic climax, but it never arrives. The final shot is so ambiguous that you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be terrified at the mere notion of these tiny all-seeing peepers, or wish you could run out and buy one right away. The picture features a few wickedly funny sequences, including one in which a duo of chipper Circle footsoldiers explain the company’s social-media policy to Mae. (Basically, having a social-media presence is completely optional and also mandatory.) It also features the wonderful and rarely seen Glenne Headly in a small role, as Mae’s mother. Bill Paxton, in what has turned out to be one of his final film appearances, plays Mae’s father, who’s suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. It’s no one’s fault, but the performance—beautifully sympathetic, as so many of Paxton’s performances were—is painful to watch, largely because the character is gradually slipping away, physically, from his family, just as Paxton so recently slipped away from us.
Watson is reasonably charming at first but annoying by the end, largely because it’s hard to believe that this clearly bright young woman could also be such a gullible idiot. The story condescends to Mae, and, by extension, to smart, ambitious millennials everywhere—I’m not a millennial, but I felt offended on their behalf. Shot by Matthew Libatique, The Circle has a polished, handsome surface, but it also looks as if it were designed by committee, like a fussed-over corporate logo. That would be OK, probably—if the movie at least knew what it was selling.