When Will American Tech Thrillers Learn to Love Big Brother?

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Emma Watson in The Circle. Illustration: Vulture

(This post contains spoilers for both the book and movie versions of The Circle.)

In many ways, The Circle feels familiar. Directed by James Ponsoldt and based off Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, the film takes place at a social-media/search-engine/payment tech company that could be *gasp!* going too far. It may be the first wide-release feature film about a tech company since The Social Network — The Internship doesn’t countbut in the past six years, scores of broadly defined social-media companies and their ilk have played a pivotal role in American cinema. Entities with names like BlueBook and Deep Dream have loomed over the movies, threatening to invade our privacy, monopolize our attention spans, and grant omniscient power to the wrong people. We’ve seen this cautionary tale so many times it was hard to imagine what lurking dangers remained for our protagonists to fight back against.

But that’s the thing — they almost always fight back, in increasingly boring and repetitive ways. The Circle had the potential to upset that trend. Eggers’s novel is a rather straightforward, alarmist text, but its ending pulls off a fine gut punch, the kind usually seen in short fiction. As the book reaches its climax, our heroine Mae Holland realizes that her mysterious workplace crush is actually Ty, the reclusive founder of The Circle. He needs her to help him thwart the company’s final leap toward creating a fully functional surveillance state. “I didn’t intend any of this to happen,” he tells her. Eggers tells us Mae “knows what she has to do.” Which, of course, is rat out Ty for his treason, and take his place as the young, bright, fully transparent star of the most powerful company on Earth. The novel ends with Mae estranged from her parents, with one friend dead, and another in a coma. In its closing moments, she leans over the friend’s hospital bed, frustrated that her unconscious thoughts lie outside of The Circle’s all-seeing matrix — for now, anyway. She has fully aligned with the machine.

For a story about a monolithic Big Brother–style company, this ending is much more in the tradition of 1984 than the majority of contemporary American works, and it’s one of The Circle’s more honest beats. Much of the book’s events are predicated on farcical mass human behavior — The Circle achieves its dominance because everyone in Eggers’s near-future is awful in the same way. But by the time Mae has become a public figure, drunk on feedback, high in followers and influence, it makes sense that she would stay faithful to the mother ship, which has given her everything she now pins her identity on. A sexy rogue stranger may be tempting, but human lust is no match for the 24/7 vibrations in Mae’s notifications.

I’d like to say that the film’s outright refusal to confront that same void is surprising or strange, but it’s virtually impossible for a mainstream film to risk letting a big infotech corporation win. (The only strange thing, I suppose, is that Eggers himself wrote the screenplay with Ponsoldt, though one can only assume that there were other influences at play.) In the seemingly paradoxical logic of Hollywood, letting us see what happens when our protagonists submit to the power of technology is more dangerous than having them take up the hero mantle. At the same time, since the rise of social media (and especially post-Snowden), Hollywood has become ravenously curious about Silicon Valley’s influence on our lives and privacy. You can’t throw a rock in a multiplex in the summer without finding one of these big, bad tech companies; everyone from Captain America to Jason Bourne has had to grapple with ideas of registration, surveillance, and state control in the digital age. Directors and actors will give interviews about how their stories are “so timely,” and speak to something “everyone is concerned about right now.” Luckily for everyone, their concerns tend to get punched and car-chased away by the closing credits.

The Circle is the second film in a month to adapt a science-fiction premise and scrub it of its ambiguous ending. Ghost in the Shell’s manga and anime origins were specifically about the blurring of the line between man and machine; the new murky space that opened up fueled two feature films and dozens of episodes of television. Its protagonists were rarely directly opposed to these assimilating powers; that argument, the series assumed, had passed decades ago, with a new set of moral and philosophical questions splaying out in its wake. Crucially, at the end of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 adaptation, the cyborg Motoko Kusanagi opts to merge with a self-made AI to create a new form of consciousness, ostensibly a catalyst for an eventual Singularity. This is what the whole film is about; composer Kenji Kawai’s haunting, iconic theme is adapted from a classical Japanese wedding song. It’s neither cautionary nor aspirational — just the slow, inevitable march of evolution.

In the 2017 film adaptation, however, the writers give the heroine something very tactile to fight against: Hanka Robotics, the company that created her body and, we later learn, stole her brain from its original host for experimental purposes. As a human, Motoko Kusanagi had been an anti-technology revolutionary, but her memory, if not her nature, has been wiped. Putting aside the logical issues at play, the new Ghost in the Shell takes an exploratory, elliptical, and often abstract franchise and stuffs it into a comfortable American narrative: The wild rebel gets stifled by the big machine, until she has a moment of self-discovery that inspires her to take down the powers that be. At the end, when presented with the opportunity to merge with the AI, she refuses: “There’s more work to do.” (There is, in fact, not; Ghost in the Shell performed so poorly that a sequel seems unlikely.)

In the adaptation of The Circle, Mae is similarly confronted by Ty (John Boyega), and even though their relationship is far less emotionally and sexually intense in the film, here, she takes him up on his rebellion. She does so in spectacular fashion, leaking a huge cache of private emails and photos belonging to Circle head honchos Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), giving them a taste of the transparency they love. “We’re so fucked,” mutters Bailey. Sure, it’s satisfying to hear Bailey, a smarmy Silicon Valley father figure, reveal himself as a hypocrite, but the moment undercuts the villainy. The Bailey in the book would have very likely welcomed the floodlights — that’s what’s so troubling, and maybe even a little recognizable about him. What’s more terrifying: A CEO with skeletons in his closet, or someone whose beliefs don’t permit them to even own a closet? The leak doesn’t destroy The Circle, but it does give Mae the revolutionary arc that tech thrillers can’t seem to leave home without.

There is something vaguely opiatic about these films’ insistence that we will all #resist and #riseup in the face of a tech monopoly, when in real life we’ve already agreed to hand so much of our time and attention over to the actual Circles of the world. The movies flatter us into thinking we would certainly act up to stop them when they cross the line, so that we don’t have to think about what we’re doing right now. And there are certainly some narrative comforts that are in the interest of the major studios to uphold — why would these media conglomerates, that all have stakes in monopolizing our digital lives, want to show us how alien it would feel to actually live in the world they’re trying to build? When people wonder at how USA, owned by Comcast, would dare show such “radical” anti-corporate content as Mr. Robot, it feels terribly naïve to me. (Full disclosure: I once co-hosted an official Mr. Robot Digital After Show, which was hosted on Facebook.) What’s more aspirational than American rebellion?

And it is American, by the way — whether because of the structure of our entertainment industry or more entrenched values that we won’t be able to extricate from our storytelling DNA for another century. Our British and Japanese counterparts, for starters, are all too eager to imagine defeat at the hands of the Big Company, or a peaceful union of man and machine. That’s real science fiction, after all — not wondering at how we’ll defeat the future, but how we’ll live in it.

When Will American Tech Thrillers Learn to Love Big Brother?