Film (2017). Image Nation Abu Dhabi, Likely Story, Playtone. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on Eggers' The Circle (2013). Cast includes Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton. 110 minutes. Colour.
Directionless call centre employee Mae (Watson) secures an interview at the social media company The Circle through the influence of her old friend Annie (Gillan). She is soon drawn into the cultish orbits of its breathless, evangelical corporate culture, where almost all social interactions are part of its all-encompassing Media Landscape, and where the development of new apps pushes constantly for invasive co-options of user privacy and personal data. Eager to please her charismatic bosses Bailey (Hanks) and Stenton (Oswalt), she volunteers to be the first fully "transparent" member of the public, streaming almost every waking moment live to the Internet. Her enthusiasm for The Circle's inventions leads her into conflict with her parents, who are collateral victims of her abrogation of personal privacy, and her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Coltrane), who is hounded to his death by misinformed social media stalkers. As The Circle starts to dominate public and even political discourse around the world, to the extent that voter registration becomes impossible without submitting to its terms and conditions, Mae conspires with disenchanted programmer Ty (Boyega) to tear down the structure that she has helped to build.
Based on the 2013 Technothriller of the same name by Dave Eggers, The Circle is a somewhat faded palimpsest of his original Satire, with a number of prominent comic actors in the cast who nevertheless seem bereft of jokes. Notably, it discards several elements from the original novel. Annie's fall from grace, for example, which in the novel is the result of unwelcome big-data revelations about her family history, is dismissed in the film simply as over-work, while Mercer's death, left ambiguous in the novel, is clearly portrayed as an accident rather than suicide. Most remarkably, the film shies away from Egger's original conclusion, offering instead a final reel in which Mae supposedly teaches her bosses a vital lesson by taking their own private data fully public, rather than the more nuanced prose ending, which trusted the reader to understand that she had become as dangerously deluded as her employers.
Mae's parents, Vinnie and Bonnie (Paxton and Headly, in their final film roles) are presented as homespun, kindly folk, grateful for the support offered by the company's medical programmes, but heedless of the likely side-effects on their private and personal lives. Mae herself, in a realistic depiction of Millennial morals, offers only a token resistance to the peer pressure of The Circle, before casting aside her concerns about the misuse and misprision of data, despite repeated reminders of the likely costs. Whereas the previous generation's social media touchstone, the hero of The Truman Show (1998), was an unwitting victim of media intrusion, Mae voluntarily gives up every conceivable element of her privacy, as part of a steamroller of technological change that, despite her half-hearted rebel efforts in the final reel, ultimately seems unstoppable. As a result, she often comes across not as an empathetic point-of-view heroine, but as a somewhat clueless dupe, no more so than when she inexplicably decides to steal a kayak and paddle out into the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay at midnight. That this act of reckless self-endangerment should be the catalyst that eventually leads to her celebrity is an ironically believable representation of modern media. [JonC]
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