The kind of spectacular failure that requires all participants to be on the same page, working together as one with fevered commitment toward making a disaster, The Circle couldn’t be timelier or more exasperating. Chronicling the misadventures of an impressionable young woman who begins working for an ominous tech company that wants to invade every aspect of our personal lives, this thriller from director James Ponsoldt touches on any number of concerning aspects of modern existence, reducing them all to inanities. There’s a chilling film to be made about society’s lack of privacy as we give away parts of ourselves to social media, the internet and powerful corporations—The Circle gets nowhere close.
Based on Dave Eggers’s 2013 novel, The Circle stars Emma Watson as Mae, a kindly but cash-strapped San Franciscan who’s ecstatic that her friend (Karen Gillan) gets her a job at the Circle, the planet’s coolest company. A mixture of Facebook, Google and Apple, the Circle specializes in technology and social media, introducing products like SeeChange: tiny, round cameras that can be secretively placed anywhere in the world, providing not just stunning video, but also detailed information about anyone in front of their lens. Led by the charismatic, altruistic Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), the Circle sees its mission as providing transparency and promoting a more democratic society—one in which terrorists can never hide, and bureaucratic, corrupt governments will finally be held accountable. Who wouldn’t want this brighter tomorrow?
Ponsoldt has made superb, intimate characters dramas—Smashed, The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour—which have focused on the interplay between sensitive, well-drawn individuals striving to make or maintain connection. The Circle, which he adapted alongside Eggers, feels like a conscious attempt to go in a different direction, resulting in a zeitgeist-y paranoid thriller—albeit one still guided by the sort of sensitive, anxious protagonist who’s usually at the center of his films.
So what went wrong here? The Circle has reliable actors and a fun-albeit-familiar premise: What if you learned that your amazing new workplace was actually up to something nefarious? Sadly, it’s the execution where this movie goes horribly off the rails, sucking everybody on screen into its vortex of embarrassment.
Early on, most viewers will determine that the Circle isn’t nearly as wonderful as it claims to be. Most everyone Mae meets at her job talks in the same hyper-tech, social-media-savvy shorthand that makes them sound like Stepford Millennials. And with his gray beard and smooth paternal tones, Eamon is such a benign, “enlightened” business guru that he obviously must be hiding something.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with planting the seed of suspicion in The Circle’s opening reels, inviting the audience to ponder precisely what’s going on and savor what will happen once Mae uncovers the truth. But rather than giving us any ticking-time-bomb suspense, Ponsoldt applies the worst possible approach to this material, treating everything with oh-the-humanity sincerity that’s always several steps behind the audience. The movie’s real-world parallels are painfully apparent, and yet The Circle thinks it’s engaged in a meaningful, provocative debate about the dangers of losing one’s identity in our sped-up, interconnected public sphere.
As the initially reluctant Mae begins to be seduced by the Circle’s ability to make her an instant celebrity—she attaches a SeeChange to herself, soaking in the constant feedback from Circle followers around the globe—her dance with the virtual devil is contrasted with her friendship with Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), a shy, outdoors-y type who has a crush on her but prefers being off the grid, frightened by how online interactivity has warped her sweet personality. He’s meant to be an “authentic” individual who appreciates simple values like introspection, in-person conversations and communing with the natural world. But not surprisingly, The Circle’s attempts to position him as a moral compass for our wayward heroine only succeeds in turning him into the biggest nag ever—kinda like the film itself.
There are stray satirical themes throughout The Circle that are fleetingly biting: the desire to want to fit in, the seduction of social media’s echo chamber, the trendiness of ostensibly forward-looking companies that use their high ideals as a way to become more enmeshed in our lives. Even the presentation of the Circle’s open-concept, laidback campus environment has the potential to be a dark joke about the current fad to rethink stuffy corporate workplaces—a design transformation that, in its own way, has become as monolithic and imposing as the old cubicle-farm layout. And yet, rather than finding a fresh angle on these notions, Ponsoldt chooses to tell a pretty un-involving, earnest story in which Mae, inexplicably, eventually adopts the Circle’s philosophy, becoming its spokesperson until tragedy strikes.
The issues at the heart of The Circle are ones we grapple with constantly. Every day, each of us gives up a piece of our privacy to conduct business in the world, whether it’s signing on to Facebook to post pictures or entering personal information onto a website so we can buy slacks. But the film’s combination of naivety and faux-edgy sophistication proves fatal, offering a distorted perspective on our current dilemma without much brains or wit behind it. The Circle is so bereft of inspiration that Ponsoldt tries stirring up a little cyber anxiety by tapping composer Danny Elfman to do a twitchy, sub-Social Network score—and that’s when he’s not cribbing ideas from far better societal X-rays like Network and The Truman Show.
Neither Watson nor Hanks comes off well. Her usual openness mostly renders her as little more than a dull cipher here—Mae’s transformation into a Circle shill isn’t heartbreaking but baffling, making her character just seem dumb rather than misguided. Hanks has a little twinkle in his eye as this Steve Jobs-like tech messiah, but the character has no twist—no dark surprise—waiting for the actor to seize on. Still, things are even worse for Patton Oswalt as Eamon’s unsmiling, cardboard-cutout henchman and John Boyega as the enigmatic brain behind the Circle’s technological breakthroughs. Spending most of The Circle lurking in the shadows until it’s time to deliver more exposition to Mae, Boyega at least has a place to hide on screen. Others in the cast probably envied him.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: James Ponsoldt
Writers: James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers (screenplay); Dave Eggers (novel)
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly
Release Date: April 28, 2017