'The Circle': A movie review for the tech literate
Is Tom Hanks playing Zuck, @jack or Jobs? "The Circle" serves as a cautionary tale for mainstream audiences but probably won't surprise the tech savvy.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
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Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
As "The Circle" envisions it, technology's dystopian near-future is already here.
The movie, which opened Friday in the US, imagines a world where the mightiest tech company cajoles us to willingly abandon privacy. As the megacorp embarks on moonshots to promote democracy, protect human rights and provide digital convenience on steroids, a few characters suspect it's covering up sinister motives, like crushing adversaries or accumulating wealth.
Don't fault the filmmakers if that revelation feels tame. The objective of a tech thriller shouldn't be an award for peering most presciently into our digital downfall. For mainstream viewers, "The Circle" likely provides an entertaining critique of where tech could take us. But to the tech savvy, many of the movie's dark prognostications feel pretty familiar.
The upside? Tech geeks can still relish playing "Where's Waldo?" for real-life tech references.
In "The Circle," "Harry Potter" vet Emma Watson plays Mae, a young woman rescued from the drudgery of temp jobs when she's hired at the Circle, the world's most progressive tech company.
After one of the Circle's products saves her life, the company's leader, played by Tom Hanks, recruits Mae for an experimental project. She's the first person to "go transparent," sharing and broadcasting every facet of her life, save for three-minute breaks to the toilet.
Dave Eggers, the author of the 2013 novel on which the movie is based, has trumpeted how little he researched Silicon Valley, but director James Ponsoldt took the opposite approach. He and his crew visited tech campuses and consulted experts to capture the industry's culture.
"It's present-day science fiction," Anthony Bregman, one of the producers of "The Circle," said in an interview on the red carpet for the film's premiere Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival. Just this month, he said, live broadcasts of homicides on Facebook felt eerily true to the world of the movie, in which a character's death is streamed live.
Real-life tech references in the movie aren't meant as veiled accusations.
Hanks' Eamon Bailey, for example, is the company's "public-facing visionary." Earlier this week, Hanks joked with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey about playing a diabolical tech genius with a beard. "I played you! I'm not in as good of shape, I didn't exercise or eat as well, but I played you," he said.
But Bailey isn't channeling a single tech figure. He also has the onstage persona of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (down to employees taking snapshots with aluminum-colored tablets adorned by glowing white logos). Bailey's proclamations about the Circle curing all disease and unlocking human potential could have been cribbed from the News Feed posts of Facebook leader Mark Zuckerberg.
Sometimes the movie uses ambiguity to keep the audience asking questions. In the climax, Mae turns the Circle's facade of transparency against its leaders. In doing so, she pulls a Julian Assange, but the movie leaves it ambiguous whether she is more akin to the Nobel-peace-prize-nominated WikiLeaks circa 2010 or the presidential-campaign-meddling WikiLeaks of 2016.
On the nose
Other actors in the film drew from specific points of reference. Actress Karen Gillan used reports about Amazon to better understand her character, Annie. A longtime friend of Mae, Annie is part of the Circle's executive elite, delivering inhuman productivity.
To get inside Annie's head, Gillan relied on a New York Times 2015 expose about Amazon, she said. That report was criticized by the company and the Times' public editor as unfair, but the portrait of an unforgiving tech giant with intense employee expectations helped Gillan understand Annie's breaking point. "That was quite similar in the Circle, especially with my character, who is on a lot of Adderall all the time just trying to stay awake," she said.
"Whether anybody is accusing Apple of the same ambition [as the Circle], that's not for me to say," Bregman, the producer, said. (Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon didn't respond to messages seeking comment.)
Still, for tech geeks, half the fun of "The Circle" is playing spot-the-tech-reference, such as:
Mae's Luddite ex-boyfriend, Mercer, turning on his phone to death threats sparked by Mae's naive social-media posting. (Justine Sacco could relate.)
"The Circle" doesn't get everything right. At times, a superficial understanding about the internet -- a criticism of the book -- seeps through to the movie as well. Characters throw out terms like "in the cloud" similar to how your uncle who wears a hip-holster for his phone might. It's smart-sounding tech shorthand but is applied in contexts that don't make precise sense.
To our society's credit, when abuse by tech giants comes to light, we generally respond with outrage rather than the indifference of "The Circle." But at the premiere during an audience Q&A, Hanks related his own lesson from the film, while satirizing how we can mock the behavior of movie characters only to live out the same actions ourselves.
"When you see someone on stage in front of a great group of people being incredibly charming, do not trust that man!" he warned. Ever the showman, Hanks strutted back and forth, ironically enacting the exact behavior he railed against.
And the audience ate it up, with laughter and applause.