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'The Circle': The Shape of Things to Come?

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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Do you find yourself peering endlessly into your smartphone, hoping to make connections, seeking information, wiling away the time, looking for the secret of life and maybe even G-d? It has become your crystal ball and indeed, if we take the cue from director James Ponsoldt's "The Circle," it may show the way to a very creepy future. More important than it is good, this fictionalized audit of the mass voyeurism that has become a frightening offshoot of the information explosion demands the attention of people who still care to think for themselves.
 
The delve into this world by Mae Holland, a young woman previously in a dead-end customer service job who is recruited by a powerful, cyberworld firm and becomes Alice in Totalitarian Land, is ominously dark, literally and figuratively. Whether what appears to be bargain basement cinematography is a result of budgetary restraints or purposely done to exact mood, it is uncomfortably effective. This cautionary glimpse into yet another Brave New World contains an evil witch's backroom of all the elements that threaten our destiny.
 
Emma Watson as the everywoman determined to fulfill her potential reflects the quandary humankind faces whenever perched at the precipice of all great inventions and the social change they dictate. It is a place where great and terrible have met ever since the dawning of civilization, where the Yin and the Yang battle it out to shape society, each in its own ideological image. There's always a give and take. Fire will keep you warm, but kill you if misused. And so it follows that with the computer's incursion, there is a price for its wizardry.
 
While such warnings have issued forth ever since zeroes and ones have done everything from helping cure disease to extending the practicality of the internal combustion engine, what has scared us most is the Orwellian suggestion that the very sovereignty of our soul was at risk. But making it all the more frightening is the scurrilous test kitchen of autocracy currently fermenting in America, where a portion of our citizenry is already willing to give up its self-determination for the promise of so-called security. A Pied Piper tweets in the night and they follow blindly.
 
Thus, while "The Circle" isn't enjoyable in the usually accepted definition of the term, the not so blurry mirror it holds up proves the cinema version of the horrific traffic accident from which we can't divert our eyes. It's too close to reality. Give a little too much more and we're in trouble. Happily, most citizens of the United States aren't willing to forsake the freedoms and inalienable rights guaranteed by the Founding Fathers just so that we might not have to think too hard.
 
Mae, on the other hand, in her zeal to become successful, and having bought into the propaganda spouted by tech companies that get too invasive for their britches, is incautious when the big opportunity presents itself. Wanting to please, she tosses herself into the cauldron of depersonalization, lock, stock and barrel. Like the young, heretofore unspoiled Roy Hobbs in "The Natural" (1984), who is also enticed by something perhaps too good to be true, she "just didn't see it coming." 
 
Interpreting "The Circle" as a metaphor for today's troubling state of affairs, we say whoa, Nellie! Remember, this is the movies. Like Scrooge presented with the Ghost of the Future, we can still preserve our liberty. Just one big election and our national nightmare is over. Oh, it won't be perfect. It never was, it never can be…perfect is the illusionary stuff of would-be tyrants who divide, conquer and sow fear. But as Mae, our example of poor judgement, gets in deeper and deeper, she gives us quite a scare.
 
She is so swept up in how her fate and fortune might align with the vaunted goals of The Circle, led by wunderkind-turned-social media tycoon, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), that she is disposed to keypunching her way into potential oblivion. The tipping point comes when, in the spirit of the company's mantra, "Caring is Sharing," she agrees to go transparent. This means wearing a camera 24/7. Everyone now knows as much about Mae as can be seen, in addition to whatever voluntary confessions the process purges from her. It's her dubious 15 minutes of fame.
 
At the bottom of it all, lack of self-esteem makes her feel guilty for any human instinct not in the perceived interest of the group, even as the mob mentality of such thinking threatens to hurt loved ones. So hark and beware, says the film. The amalgam of contradicting ideologies suggested, from fascism to communism, reminds us that the extremes of left and right travel around "The Circle" to shake hands and conspire against their sworn enemy, We the People.
 
 "The Circle," rated PG-13, is a STX Entertainment release directed by James Ponsoldt and stars Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Ellar Coltrane. Running time: 110 minutes
 
 

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