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Film review: 'The Circle'

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We live in an increasingly interconnected world, and at this point it's pretty clear there's no going back (at least until the impending apocalypse occurs, then we're all on our own). As society grows more Orwellian, it stands to reason that artists will continue to create stories that sift through exactly what the changing face of technology means for the people living with it. The conflict between security and privacy is a subject worth exploring, so hopefully future filmic efforts will be less clumsy and ham-fisted than "The Circle." The film daintily dips its toes into the discussion but fails to offer up any real insight, coming across like the direct descendant of alarmist cyber-thrillers, like "The Net," that were so popular in the mid-90's.

Here, Emma Watson is Mae, an idealistic, recent college grad who lands her dream job at a Facebook-Google-Apple-esque tech corporation called The Circle. Its founders (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt) preach utopian ideals of technology fostering human connection (Hanks uses his trustworthy, nice-guy demeanor to great effect, and he's the best part of the movie). Mae buys into the company's cult-like atmosphere, rising up the corporate ladder until she's eventually agreeing to "go transparent" by appearing on camera 24/7 and broadcasting it over the Internet.

Allowing complete strangers to observe every moment of her life without any barrier -- save for three minutes of alone time designated for bathroom use -- ends up alienating her parents (GlenneHeadly and Bill Paxton, in his final film performance) as well as her off-the-grid friend, Mercer ("Boyhood" star Ellar Coltrane in, I'm sad to report, an abysmal performance). And before long, it seems *gasp!* that there may actually be a downside to dismantling one's sense of privacy. Who'dathunk?

"The Circle" boasts an impressive pedigree: the film is based on a Dave Eggers novel, directed by the generally wonderful James Ponsoldt, and employs a talented cast. So what went wrong? The film clearly has much it wants to say about surveillance, collection of personal data, and the role of technology in our lives, but those ideas are so superficial and poorly thought out that they remain frustratingly vague. We never get a handle on what The Circle's agenda is; they don't seem malevolent so much as willfully ignorant about the consequences their technology has when enforced on people's actual, messy lives.

The characterization of Mae is similarly all over the place, seesawing wildly from skeptic to true believer. And her semi-flirtatious relationship with a mysterious employee (John Boyega, utterly wasted) who skulks around offering cryptic warnings makes absolutely no sense.

The film gets a few decent laughs out of its satirical depiction of corporate culture and jabs at social media activism ("We've sent over 180 million frowns from the US alone, and you can bet that has had an effect on the regime!"), but there's no avoiding the feeling that this has all been done before and better -- even last summer's YA thriller "Nerve" managed to cover a lot of the same ground much more effectively. By the end, "The Circle" feels like a cautionary tale that can't decide exactly what it's cautioning us against.

Check back on Friday for more film coverage, including a review of the Emily Dickinson biopic, "A Quiet Passion."

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