Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 29, 2017 1:32 pm 
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This tech thriller has no thrills

James Ponsoldt is a younger American director who has made some original and successful small pictures and now has been given a bigger more expensive one. It has no relation to his previous interests in alcoholism (in both 2012's Smashed and 2013's The Spectacular Now)* or David Foster Wallace (2015's The End of the Tour). Maybe he had also been pining to make a 1984-style dystopian techno thriller adapted from a Dave Eggers novel, as he has done. But in the new format he shows no particular knack for the kind of grandeur alternating with intimacy called for by the story. The Circle makes some points, but they risk being totally obvious ones. This movie isn't tasteless and icky as some films of this kind can be. It's flashy and watchable, with a star cast. But it's bland and toothless and leaves one feeling unenlightened as to the dangers it focuses on, as, perhaps does the Eggers novel, as well.

The story draws from Northern Caliafornia's cyber world, but from the Google, Apple, Facebook empires and their rulers and authoritarian doubletalk - not the startup world of nutty techie brainiacs and kooky libertarian visionaries of Mke Judge's amusing and smart series "Silicon Valley." At the center is Mae Holland (Emma Watson), an innocent young everywoman protagonist who's thrilled when her pal Annie (Scot Karen Gillan), a company insider at The Circle, a giant Bay Area everything tech firm, gets her out of her phone-answering shit job and into the much better benefits of employment at the company. It's not very clear what she does at first, other than sit in front of a barrage of computer screens with floating text lines - the movie's main stylistic gesture. Such text line floaters, in multiple languages, will be all over the picture screen once Mae consents to have her entire life broadcast live in real time on everybody's Circle account. It's like being on YouTube, Facebook, and Google simultaneously. Obviously the movie version's contribution to Egger's idea is the CGI realization of all this.

Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), The Circle's big boss, is the guy who comes out to sell all company-sponsored inroads on human privacy in the interests of making the world a better place. He's casual, chummy, privileged, at ease on the big stage like Steve Jobs - though Hanks is too cuddly to give Bailey a creepy Jobsian edge that would have made Bailey interesting. Employees at The Circle are expected to be true believers. The emerging dogma includes "Secrets are lies. Sharing is Caring. Privacy is theft." Obviously this is a softer, updated version of Orwellian doublethink. The whole thing is clear from the opening sequence of Bailey's first big on screen pitch to the faithful, with Mae a newcomer "guppy" now in the audience. It comes pre-branded as "SeeChange," a system of using tiny camera information-gathering devices attached to people and places to send information from everywhere to the central Circle data bank.

Supposing Circle membership worldwide was tantamount to voter registration, and logging on enabled you to vote? Suppose, as Mae, once she becomes a company symbol, avatar, and leader, proposes, that everyone was required to vote by this means? Total 100% democracy! And politicians linked to SeaChange would be 100% "transparent" (a soothing buzzword for governments and businesses with lots to conceal). Obviously The Circle is setting itself up to head a surveillance society. The movie hints at the great danger of this trend. But it fails to spell some things out. I don't think it even mentioned the words "surveillance society," and it certainly didn't propose a solution.

The movie switches some things around from Eggers' book, but there is a Circle pioneer, here called Ty Lafitte (John Boyega, of Attack the Block), who takes Mae aside early on and shows her the ugly proto-totalitarian secrets of The Circle, whose inroads on freedom he wants to stop from going futther. But Ty stays in the shadows, his role downgraded from the novel. The other contrast is Mae's near and dear, her father Vinnie (the late Bill Paxton), who has MS; her mother Annie (Karen Gillan); and her longtime "friend" Mercer, a hippie craftsman who makes hanging chandeliers out of antlers. (As Mercer, Ellar Coltrane, having played himself for 12 years in Boyhood, does the best job in the movie of seeming real.) They don't go along with sharing Mae's celebrity and "transparency" of being like a universal one person reality show. They want their privacy. Vinnie and Bonnie opt out and Mercer cuts himself off and disappears.

The movie's climax is an ugly sequence when a new program called "SoulSearch" is used by Mae before the faithful again, and a world audience, to track people, first a woman who has escaped jail where she was for causing her children's death, then Mercer. If more had been done to develop the characters, what happens to Mercer would cause pain and outrage.

Technology always has up and down sides, which is why the concept of "progress" is full of irony for the sensitive. If a tool is made it will be used. It's a grand stroke of luck the planet hasn't been destroyed by nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Obviously the connectivity of the planet has enormous advantages, but cyber technology is in danger of leading to universal surveillance and the disappearance of individual privacy, as shown in The Circle. Techno-dominance also points to a world where ordinary people are exploited from above.

As indeed the cast is exploited by this simplistic movie. Mae is made into an idiot. Doesn't the movie know that it's the doubts and unease that make such a story interesting? True, the tech giants know how to seduce us, but things have to be made more complicated than this for smart, ambitious millennials. The Circle, most of the way nothing but a packaged, childish lecture, ends just when it's becoming mildly interesting. It has no balls and nothing new to say. The only thing that keeps it from being a compltely terrible movie is the special effects. And they are all on computer screens.

The Circle, 110 mins., debuted at Tribeca 26 Apr. 2017, opening in a whole lot of countries in April and May (US 28 Apr.).
*His first feature, the 2006 Off the Black, which I have not seen, also focuses on an alcoholic, played by Nick Nolte.

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