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NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - "The Circle," a movie adaptation of Dave Eggers' eponymous 2013 novel, tries to chill and amuse while telling the tale of a cultish internet company that wants to save the world by abolishing privacy. The result is neither hellish enough to be a dystopian drama nor biting enough to work as satirical comedy. Like its protagonist, it means well, but lacks a sense of identity.
The creepy, all-seeing tech firm, which is also called The Circle, is revealed through the eyes of an insecure young woman named Mae - played by former "Harry Potter" star Emma Watson - for whom it is initially the workplace of her dreams. A kind of near-future Frankenfirm combining aspects of Google, Facebook and Twitter, the company is headed by Chief Executive Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks at his most avuncular.
He is in favor of human rights, government transparency and everyone being their "best selves," he says. Putting miniature live-streaming cameras everywhere in the world is, to his mind, a pretty good way to achieve that. The idea is that people behave best when watched.
Hanks' character, alongside a thuggish-looking finance chief and a mysterious founder who drifts in and out of the action, form the three so-called wise men who run The Circle. Starting out in customer service, Mae finds herself drawn further into the company's embrace when it offers health insurance to her parents in return for access to the medical data of her father, who has multiple sclerosis. At an early stage of the film, she is embarrassed by his incontinence. She wants a shiny, glossy life, not one of mess and imperfection. The Circle offers her that, along with belonging and validation. Life, when on the antiseptic company campus, seems perfectible – if everyone shares enough of themselves.
Initially Mae jokes about drinking the corporate Kool-Aid. One of the biggest flaws of "The Circle," though, is how quickly she then does so. Early on she is freaked out by ghastly human-resources types intimidating her into giving up her weekends; but after getting into a spot of deep water, literally and metaphorically, she soon volunteers to "go transparent," or wear a camera that broadcasts virtually every aspect of her waking life. Then she is aghast when things go horribly wrong; then she doubles down on her commitment to the company.
Mae's whiplashing back and forth, as presented in the movie, is unsatisfying. Even at the end, it is unclear whether she thinks The Circle's plans to collect as much data as possible on everyone and everything are fundamentally wrong. The book ends more darkly, which feels more coherent than the film’s confusing effort to include a partially happy ending.
"The Circle" reflects aspects of the present that are deeply troubling, be it the recent recording and broadcast of a murder on Facebook, the hate-filled trolling of individuals via social media or the hoovering up of personal data, much of it willingly volunteered, by companies that make their billions through advertising. Among real-life devices whose benign goals seem open to co-option by forces not unlike those portrayed in the book and film is the Echo Look, just unveiled by Amazon – a voice-activated gadget with a camera designed, among other things, to help people figure out what outfits to wear and to see themselves "from every angle."
Yet privacy and democratic freedoms are unlikely to be undermined in quite the way "The Circle" imagines, at the hands of a single totalitarian corporation able to bend governments to its will. Reality is messier than that.
A powerful digital-advertising duopoly does exist, though – Google parent Alphabet and Facebook share more than 75 percent of the U.S. online ad market, and together grabbed 99 percent of the growth in U.S. online ads last year, according to Pivotal Research Group. That calls for antitrust scrutiny. More than 90 percent of U.S. adults think consumers have lost control of how personal information is collected and used by companies, according to a September 2016 Pew Research report.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden meanwhile has helped reveal the extent of mass collection of data by intelligence agencies, prompting widespread fears of its misuse, as the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations recounts in an October 2016 study. Concerns about undue government snooping, though, are absent from "The Circle."
Security guru and author Bruce Schneier, in his 2015 book "Data and Goliath," proposed an alternative future in which mass surveillance by companies and governments will seem as outlandish as child labor or environmental pollution. Schneier put forward an array of measures big and small that individuals and organizations can take to fight it. "The Circle" will raise awareness of the darker side of social-media transparency and the voluntary surrender of privacy. But it examines none of the issues as tellingly as, for example, the British television series "Black Mirror" – required viewing for anyone who finds "The Circle" and its bland tech hell not quite dystopian enough.