If Facebook were a tech company headquartered in Hell—and who's to say it actually isn't, eh?—it might closely resemble The Circle, the blandly creepy organization at the center of the new movie by director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour). The picture is based on a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, and it shows us a world in which individual privacy has withered, and heedless vigilantism is routinely fanned into online witch hunts. This ugly digital future is a little less-disturbing than it might have been, because in many ways it's already arrived.
Emma Watson is Mae Holland, a young Bay Area woman who's rescued from a dismal temp job by a call from her longtime friend Annie (Karen Gillan), who works at The Circle and gets a job interview for Mae so that she can come onboard, too. (The interview is a typically whimsical nerd interrogation: "Joan Baez or Joan Crawford? Sushi or Soylent?") The company is a shiny paradise in which employees are coddled at every turn. There are support groups for all sorts of life annoyances, and off-campus party excursions at which stars like Beck provide the entertainment. All of the employees seem to be young, and all are deliriously enthusiastic. Soon Mae is installed in a deluxe dorm room, marveling at her amazing luck.
The first unsettling sign that something's not quite right at this place is a visit from two team-leader-type employees who are concerned that Mae is remaining a little too mysterious: she has to be much more active on social media, and to start dealing with the thousands of friendly messages she's been letting go unanswered. Also, it's been noticed that she doesn't come into the office on weekends—not that there's anything wrong with that.
Mae quickly gets with the program, and soon comes to the attention of The Circle's beamingly avuncular leader, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), and his purring subordinate, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). At the "Dream Friday" gatherings he runs in the company auditorium, Bailey strides the stage like the ghost of Steve Jobs. He's currently talking up a tiny new camera the company has developed that can be unobtrusively stuck on a wall to broadcast what it sees, in real time, to Circle subscribers worldwide. The camera is called SeeChange, and it's a powerful human-rights weapon, Bailey says: "Tyrants and terrorists can no longer hide." Nor, of course, can anyone else.
Not everyone buys into The Circle's life-swallowing agenda. Mae's parents (Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton, in his last movie role) give it a try, but bail out rather than sacrifice their privacy. (They're old, what're you gonna do?) Also resistant is Mae's once-close pal Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, of Boyhood), who is found by Circle honchos to be guilty of not staying in close-enough touch with her—of not accepting the necessity of constant online connection. Mercer comes to regret this. Also skeptical, as Mae eventually learns, is a mysterious guy named Kalden (John Boyega), who as a cofounder of The Circle knows some alarming things about it.
Unfortunately, nothing about the movie is quite alarming enough. There's no menace beyond The Circle's determined creation of an all-encompassing surveillance state—and don't we already live in one of those? Nothing new seems to be at stake. This is a non-sci-fi movie that might have been improved by the addition of an alien invasion.
Still there's a real totalitarian chill to some of the rationalizations put forth here for a society in which everyone is constantly logged on and keeping track of what everyone else is up to. There's nowhere to hide—and that's felt to be good. "Secrets are what make crimes possible," says one character. "When you're depriving others of your experiences," Bailey asserts, "you're stealing from them."
It's as disconcerting as always to recognize how easily this sort of agenda can be sold to so many people. Drawn ever more deeply into The Circle, even Mae not only drinks the Kool-Aid, but soon starts doing laps in it. "Do you believe you behave better or worse when you're being watched?" Bailey asks her at one point. "Better," she says.