The best thing about “The Circle,” the dystopian social media-on-steroids drama starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, is that you now can watch it as part of a double feature with Netflix’s new “The Social Dilemma,” and consider how much of the movie is coming horribly true. Without offering too many spoilers, the film is the story of a young woman (Watson) who believes she has found her dream job working for an Amazon/Facebook-like Big Tech company run by creepily a slick and charismatic Tom Hanks. He is the prophet of over-sharing, developing and peddling products that will feed every aspect of everyone’s life into Big Data-storing and manipulating computers and banish privacy forever, all for the Greater Good, of course. The young woman, Mae, is quickly corrupted, and soon a force within “The Circle,” as Tom’s creation calls itself, to expand and use the company’s power to facilitate universal, indeed mandatory voting, for example. Law enforcement! Social control!
Mae’s epiphany is that secrets are bad, the equivalent of lies. She decides to become the first person to share every waking moment—except three minutes to use the toilet—with Hanks’ ubiquitous social network.
The movie, which is basically a long “Dark Mirror” episode, was panned by critics for its predictability, lack of originality and unambiguous ethical issues. They were right. (The movie was a box office success anyway, because apparently fans of Harry Potter will watch anything with Emma Watson in it. Watson has even less screen presence as an adult actress than fellow ex-child star Natalie Portman, something I wouldn’t have believed possible.)
What I found annoying about the movie was how brain-dead Watson’s character was despite being portrayed as bright and perceptive, and how stunningly unable to see the fascist creep (both meanings are valid here) right in front of her. If I went to an interview, and as I left saw giant photos of me projected on screens in the company’s lobby, that would be more than sufficient to trigger my RUN!!! instinct. Even more ominous was Mae’s conversation with two pushy, faux-cheery staffers who nicely insisted that Mae share more on social media, as well as making it clear that she was expected to participate in “voluntary” company gatherings after work and on weekends. I hope I would have quit the job before that conversation was over.
“The Circle” is a cult, of course, and in 2017 I would have doubted that enough young people would be so gullible and ignorant as to fall for Hanks’ sinister world view and self-aggrandizing plot. In 2020, after watching so many of my Facebook friends become drooling zombies after being bombarded with woke messaging, the complete acceptance of terrible ideas and flawed reasoning because that’s what the mob is cheering for and tweeting about seems much more plausible.
Mae finally wakes up and smells the swastikas, but even that development is hard to accept: her conversion from true believer to rebel/whistle-blower is too quick and unmotivated.
“The Social Dilemma” is better, but both films raise the same ethical issues about the abuse of power by Big Tech, and the corruption of society’s values such companies not only foster, but intend.