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PHIL ON FILM: 'The Circle' draws a chilling warning about social media privacy invasion

Posted at 9:24 AM, Apr 28, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-21 15:40:51-04

"The Circle" is a horror movie in which Facebook, Google and Apple join forces, 'roid up and grab you by the virtual throat to strangle every last bit of privacy out of you, swapping it for control and advertising dollars.

It's all a little much on the alarmist front, but director James Ponsoldt's warning message rings true despite his film's tendency to hyperbole. 

The potboiler is a modern take on 90s corporate horror films such as "The Firm" and "Devil's Advocate," about a young hotshot employee who lands a dream job, only to fall victim to be eaten alive by the controlling corporate culture.

Mae (Emma Watson) is thrilled to get out of her call center gig by landing a job at utopian social media/tech conglomerate that shares the title with the film. You can see why Mae wants to buy into the hydra-like company. 

The CEO (Tom Hanks) has the charisma of Steve Jobs, the company campus, with amenities such as yoga, concerts and parties, echoes that of Google and the technology has the reach and breadth of Facebook.

There are cascading downsides, though. Mae discovers that those parties and yoga classes are kinda, sorta not optional -- in the sense that employee participation is tracked and scored in the manner of Xbox Live achievements -- and that there's a wellspring of ruthlessly controlling vitriol behind the CEO's cool-guy grin, as well as that of his toady, hatchet man sidekick (Patton Oswalt).

Despite the red flags, as well as stern warnings from her parents and friends, Mae finds herself seduced into the rungs of the Circle. It's easy to empathize for anyone who's found themselves bending their lives to conform to a social media ideal, seduced by the promise of shares and likes -- an artificial sense of approval and accomplishment that aptly substitutes for the real thing.

Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now," "The End of the Tour") steps up his light, near future sci-fi elements with fascinating technology, such as tiny 360-degree cameras that can stick to a surface and provide a constant video stream with real-time analytics, ubiquitous, X-Wing-like drones and a next-level Facebook Live lifecasting app. It's easy to imagine many of the wonders the movie projects coming to life in short order.

The performances help sell the flash and showmanship of the tech. Hanks thrives as a cheery tyrant and Watson seems much more comfortable here than in, say, "Beauty and the Beast," as she explores the dark side of this high-tech Hogwarts.

Maybe the scariest aspect about the movie is how appealing many aspects of its projection of a no-privacy future seem cool and appealing. The world it envisions seems something close to inevitable, regardless of the pound of flesh it seizes from the humanity of the users it exploits. It's something to ponder as you like, share and click your way toward that future, wondering what you might do tonight that would make for a cool post.

RATING: 3 stars out of 4.