When a novel of ideas gets turned into a movie, those ideas need to be embodied in characters and situations rather than come pouring out of mouthpieces. Social issues are often better explored when they flow organically from the drama instead of arriving bullet-pointed in debate-ready dialogue. An audience deserves to feel engaged, not lectured at. Otherwise, you get “The Circle.”
Which is a shame, because there’s talent to burn here. Screenwriter Dave Eggers has adapted his own 2013 novel about a Google-like company whose vision of tech-utopia comes to seem decidedly sinister. His co-writer, director James Ponsoldt, is a literate filmmaker who turned “The Spectacular Now” into one of the better Young Adult film adaptions and who managed to dramatize an episode in the life of David Foster Wallace (“The End of the Tour”) without making a fool of himself.
Emma Watson, still brisk with Hermione Granger confidence even as a wayward twentysomething, does her best to bring the heroine to life: Mae Holland, who’s hired into the social media behemoth The Circle as a low-level “guppy” but rises as she becomes the poster child for the company’s latest app, a wearable camera called SeeChange that allows her to “become transparent” by broadcasting her life around the clock.
Most of us would shrink from that notion and uneasily mock those media personalities who embrace it. Mae enthusiastically signs up for The Circle’s cult of nonprivacy, even as the growing ubiquity of SeeChange spells problems for her parents (Glenne Headley and, in his final film role, Bill Paxton; the movie’s dedicated to him), her best friend (Karen Gillan), and Mercer (“Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane), the hot childhood pal who prefers to live off the grid and make chandeliers out of deer antlers.
Mae has her doubts, stoked by John Boyega (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) as a mysterious Circle employee, but whispering in her other ear is Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey, the charismatic, folksy Circle founder who comes across as Steve Jobs crossed with, well, Tom Hanks. Under his tutelage, Mae begins coming up with bright Orwellian catch phrases like “Secrets are lies!” and leaping nimbly from “What if your Circle profile automatically registered you to vote?” to “Why not require every voting age citizen to have a Circle account?”
The movie’s point is that fascism doesn’t always arrive in a strongman’s clothing but sometimes in the lamb’s wool of technological breakthrough and “ease of use.” “The Circle” is at its brief best satirizing the all-encompassing Circle campus and the way the company seduces its employees into blissful lockstep, but the dialogue is as subtle as a placard, the drama manages to be both cooked-up and dull, and the movie’s fear of brainwashed, tech-addicted millennials is so broad as to be unintentionally funny.
In fact, there may be a great, furious comedy to be made on this subject — a “Brazil” for the Facebook era, or “Dr. Strangelove: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Sell My Data.” But serious novelists probably won’t be writing it.
Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on the novel by Eggers. Starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 110 minutes. PG-13 (a sexual situation, brief strong language, thematic elements, shiny happy zombie millennials)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.