Friday, April 28, 2017

Will we allow technology to ruin us?

The Circle wrings its hands over a problem that already has been explored elsewhere. The movie fails to pack a persuasive punch.

When we're on-line are we using our computers or are our computers using us? And what about all those apps that allow us to share everything about our lives? Have we become genial participants in the destruction of our own privacy?

These and related questions constantly are debated when we discuss -- often on the very technology that's under consideration -- the increasingly linked world many of us spend far too much time inhabiting.

The great fear, of course, is that corporations with sinister motives are taking charge of all this "connection," turning us into a nation of idiots who blindly worship technology without giving enough thought to the gods before whom we're bowing. It's not only our data but our heads that are stuck in various clouds.

Such thoughts inform The Circle, a new movie based on a 2014 novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with the movie's director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now).

The movie stars Emma Watson as a young woman who lands her dream job with a company called The Circle. The Circle seems to be one of those "hot" Silicon Valley businesses that specialize in developing apps that create synthetic communities. The company's latest invention -- a tiny camera that can be placed anywhere without fear of detection -- is celebrated at a gathering presided over by the company's president, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks).

Bailey calls the project SeeChange. He introduces the camera with the committed fervor of someone who believes that life never again will be the same -- and that the great shift he's selling is a very good thing.

Bearded and adopting the friendly attitude of a tycoon who's adored by his employees, Hanks appears only intermittently as the movie introduces Emma's Mae to The Circle's corporate culture, which includes monitoring every employee's health and pushing participation in a variety of extra-curricular activities designed to strengthen bonds of camaraderie.

Of course, everything at The Circle seems a bit artificial, and the company's concern about the well-being of its workers might be a bit much even for these isolated tech nerds to swallow.

Much of the movie plays like a parody of the sort of companies at which campuses have replaced offices and order is imposed in ways that sustain an illusion of free-form play.

Eamon rules the company with a partner, an underutilized Patton Oswalt, who does more to suggest manipulative ambition than Hanks.

A wasted John Boyega portrays Ty, the man who created the company's signature app, TruYou. Ty wanders around the campus, occasionally bumping into Mae with whom he shares his cynicism about The Circle.

Privacy becomes the movie's big issue. How much are we willing to surrender? Are the benefits of SeeChange (everything from suicide prevention to halting child abuse) real?

Mae becomes the human guinea pig for testing SeeChange, wearing the tiny camera at all times and turning into an Internet star. She also loses her relationship with a low-tech pal, Ellar Coltrane in a wobbly performance that makes him appear like a non-actor and makes us even more appreciative of the work that director Richard Linklater did with him in Boyhood.

Watson's performance seems to stick close to the surface, but her character could have been better drawn. Same goes for Hanks' Eamon, and although the movie raises intriguing questions, it expresses them with a ton of on-the-nose dialogue that lacks the eloquence of, say, the on-the-nose dialogue Patty Chayefsky wrote for Network, a movie that, in its talky way, was prescient about reality TV and the tendency to turn news into entertainment.

Besides, the principal characters in Network were grown-ups, not 29somethings who seem to approach the workplace as if it were the playgrounds they wish they'd never outgrown.

The late Bill Paxton appears as Mae's father, a man crippled by MS. Paxton's presence -- which reminds us of his absence -- has an emotional impact the filmmakers couldn't have anticipated.

There's nothing wrong with a movie that wants to play with issues and ideas. What such movies need, though, are deeper characters than those who populate The Circle.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to Google a name that I saw dropped on Facebook.

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