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Tribeca spotlights your worst tech nightmare: 'The Circle'

Not stopping with "The Circle" as its splashy premiere, the Tribeca Film Festival also lines up some ominous VR to layer on technological unease.

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Tom Hanks stars in "The Circle" as the head of a tech giant whose grandiose goals cover malicious ambitions.

STX Entertainment

Have you seen Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook keynote this week? That guy looks more like Tom Hanks each passing day.

Sorry! I'm thinking of the trailer for "The Circle." It's that tech hellmare movie, the one about an omnipotent social media giant that endangers the fabric of our society while espousing goals to cure all disease and unlock human potential.

Not Facebook.

With "The Circle" as its pick for a splashy gala premiere, the Tribeca Film Festival -- which kicks off Thursday night -- is rolling out the red carpet to our dystopian near-future. The film debuts next week at the fest and is perhaps the marquee example of TFF's ominous sidelong glance at tech. Other selections, especially a few in the festival's curation of top virtual-reality projects, put a dark spin on the possibilities of technology, too.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The fest offers up some cheerful events for geeks too. Cuddly VR animals can serenade you with John Legend's voice, for one. And comedy director Paul Feig will appear on stage to talk with SNL's Michael Che, which should bring some mirth.

Unless he dives into how trolls lobbed online abuse at his all-female "Ghostbusters" reboot.

Sigh.

Films to unnerve every geek

Besides Hanks, "The Circle" stars some actors with top-notch geeky pedigree: "Harry Potter" alum Emma Watson and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" breakout actor John Boyega.

Emma Watson plays Mae in "The Circle."

Frank Masi

In it, Watson plays Mae, a young woman hired at the one of the world's most powerful tech and social media companies, the Circle. As Mae rises through the company's ranks, the founder of the Circle, played by Hanks, encourages her to join an experimental project that tests the boundaries of privacy. The film appears to take liberties from its source material, a best-selling novel by Dave Eggers. But based on its trailers, Mae and her loved ones end up on the run from malicious drones as they try to evade the Circle's all-seeing power. "The Circle" will debut at Tribeca Wednesday night, two days before its wide release in theaters.

It isn't the only project at the festival appearing to leap at the sinister side of tech. Consider several in TFF's "Virtual Arcade," its annual array of top-tier virtual-reality films.

In "Alteration," a VR experience from France having its world premiere at Tribeca, a character named Alexandro volunteers for a dream-study experiment. But Elsa, a form of artificial intelligence described as something like a digital vampire, attempts to tap into his subconscious and feed off it.

Another VR experience, "Auto," examines autonomous cars. In it, a fictitious self-driving taxi service employs "safety drivers" to help passengers feel more comfortable. "On his first day, Musay, an Ethiopian immigrant with 40 years of driving experience, picks up a couple habituated to the service. ... Musay insists on driving, instigating a series of events with substantial consequences."

Penrose Studios returns to Tribeca with "Arden's Wake" after the company made waves last year with a stirring short called "Allumette" based on the Little Match Girl fairy tale. Set in a time when sea levels have risen, "Arden's Wake" follows a girl who literally dives into "post-apocalyptic waters" to go searching for her father, who has gone missing from the lighthouse projecting above the ocean's surface where they live.

The less-depressing side to VR

The Virtual Arcade also has a lighter side, with projects from several big names in VR.

"Rainbow Crow" is the latest effort by Baobab, a VR company best known for its "Invasion!" short depicting an adorable bunny encountering aliens, itself a debut at Tribeca last year. The latest piece, again a world premiere at TFF, is the first installment in a multichapter series recounting a fable from Native American oral tradition. John Legend voices the main character, a bird with a beautiful voice and a bit of an ego, and the company cranked its engineering hard to soften the hard edges of most computer-generated VR animation. (A side result: its characters are definitely more cuddly.)

Oculus Story Studio, which won an Emmy for a previous VR short, "Henry," will be showing off a virtual interpretation of the comic book created using its self-made VR illustration tool called Quill. The project, called "Talking with Ghosts," is a compilation of stories painted in VR by four artists.

Another big name in the Virtual Arcade this year is Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty." In collaborating with VR director Imraan Ismail, "The Protectors: Walk in The Ranger's Shoes" chronicles a day in the life of rangers in Africa's Garamba National Park who defend elephants from poachers.

Like a trolling stone

Among the directors and Hollywood talent populating the festival's Tribeca Talks series of panels, Feig has the most geek cred. In an onstage conversation with SNL's Che Tuesday, the director is set to discuss his "Ghostbusters" remake as well as other comedies on his resume, like "Bridesmaids" and "The Heat."

Feig's "Ghostbusters" collided with the unsavory side of the internet last year, when critics of his decision to reboot the classic movie with an all-female principal cast stoked a trolling campaign. The backlash contributed to the film's trailer becoming one of the most disliked clips ever on YouTube, and online abuse directed at star Leslie Jones motivated her to quit Twitter in protest.

Maybe Feig can get Hanks in his next film. Who doesn't love that guy?

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