Wednesday, May 03, 2017

A Deflated Circle

The overwhelming nature of social media to-day can be boring, particularly to people who don't know a lot about it, like the makers of 2017's The Circle. An adaptation of a more insightful novel by Dave Eggers, the film plays like the recording of someone's nightmare about the Internet in 2005, re-edited to avoid offending Apple and people who abstain from sex. A few decent performances, notably by Karen Gillan and Bill Paxton (in his final role), couldn't save the film, particularly when leads Emma Watson and Tom Hanks are unconvincing.

Mae Holland (Watson) is an average young woman who's pleased when her old college friend, Annie (Gillan), uses her clout to get her a job at The Circle, a big tech company that's sort of like Apple merged with Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Headed by a trio called The Three Wise Men in Eggers' novel, played in the movie by Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, and John Boyega, the company presides over a version of the internet several corporations have apparently convinced some people exists, where hackers are obsolete, trolls are easily disposed of, and the whole frontier is an easily tameable, virgin territory vulnerable to the machinations of a single big coordinated entity.

Naturally, the film and the book spend little time focusing on the precise nature of the social media being used, aside from vague indications that it's basically like Twitter mixed with Facebook but everything everyone says on these platforms are shallow wastes of time. Which is fair, that is a big portion of social media, though I've yet to be convinced the fault is in our devices and not in ourselves. I'm obviously not going to agree my own blog, for instance, is tripe because it happens to be published on a form of social media. So maybe I'm biased.

In the book, Mae is a young woman with an ex-boyfriend who starts sleeping with a man named Francis at The Circle, their relationship one of the things threatened with exposure to the all seeing eye of the social media, and also starts sleeping with a mysterious, off-the-grid man named Kalden, whom Annie teases Mae about in texts that have a subtly urgent undertone because the man cannot be found on The Circle's electronic media. In the movie, Mae's ex-boyfriend Mercer becomes a friend with some possible chemistry, played without a ghost of acting ability by Ellar Coltrane; Francis' whole plot has been removed from the film; and Mae never even thinks about sleeping with the film's version of Kalden. So to any Emma Watson otaku out there, don't worry, she's still pure for you. Well, aside from those magazine photos with the underboob, but still I would recommend not stoning her.

She's also not terribly convincing in this film, possibly because she's saddled with an American accent she can't make convincing for a moment. Fortunately Karen Gillan was allowed to be Scottish and she gives a performance that overshadows Watson so totally it's a little absurd, her emotional breakdown somewhat suggesting the more complex psychological dependency on public opinion rendered in the novel.

Hanks as Eamon Bailey, intended as a Steve Jobs type, is another sadly lost opportunity as his argument for transparency of all individuals to all others is a more complex one in the novel that forces one to think about the subject. The film repeats the obvious arguments that such surveillance can make it easier to catch criminals but, partly because of the removal of the Francis subplot, the film lacks the argument that the eyes of social media might provide a greater opportunity of individuals being understood by society.

Of course, the biggest change the film makes is in the ending, which thematically is almost precisely the opposite of what happens in the book, in a way that takes the final tooth out of a satire that wasn't especially biting to begin with. The novel is flawed but has some moments that really shine, the film has about as much life as spackle.

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