Heavy-handed 'Circle' wastes its cautionary message on a clunky, confusing story
Posted April 30
“THE CIRCLE” — 2 stars — Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt; PG-13 (a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use); in general release
“The Circle” is a 16-year-old rookie driver trying to start his hand-me-down Honda in fourth gear. When you try to do too much too early, you always wind up stalled.
Director James Ponsoldt’s film, based on the book by Dave Eggers, tells the story of a naïve young woman who gets tangled up in a powerful tech company bent on running our lives. The young woman is Mae (Emma Watson), a good-natured 20-something in search of a job. The company — known as the Circle — is an obvious stand-in for Facebook, Google, Apple or whatever contemporary corporation floats your Big Brother boat.
Thanks to a little intervention from her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), a Circle executive, Mae gets an entry-level position working in customer experience. For about half a second, it looks like a dream job: exciting corporate campus, enthusiastic co-workers and free company concerts from Beck.
The Circle’s mission is to make the chaotic world of the 21st century into something simple and manageable, and their solution is to rope everyone into an all-encompassing system that enables the company to control — and observe — every aspect of their personal lives. In a regular internal company meeting called “dream Friday,” CEO Bailey (Tom Hanks) — the Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg stand-in — introduces a tiny, marble-sized video camera that can be hidden everywhere and tied into the Circle’s satellite network.
The privacy invasion doesn’t stop there. One day at her desk, a pair of Stepford Wife zombie co-workers explain that Mae should spend as much of her personal time on campus as possible, and a visit to the on-campus doctor yields an internal tracking sensor and a communication wristband you can never take off. The company somehow knows about her multiple sclerosis-ridden father, Vinnie (the late Bill Paxton), and suggests that Mae put her parents on the company health care program to help them out.
Incentives like this that are supposed to justify Mae’s continued involvement with this clearly deranged, megalomaniacal company, but often Mae is just too enthusiastic to play along with the system her character should be fighting. She’s got potential allies — a Luddite friend named Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) who lives off-the-grid, and a genius programmer named Ty (John Boyega) who spends all of his time lurking about in the background and emoting to the audience that the Circle is up to no good.
Nevertheless, Mae continues to not only consent to the Circle mission, but amplify it, volunteering to wear a camera 24/7 in a “Truman Show”-style transparency effort. It’s often hard to tell whether Mae is supposed to be a Katniss Everdeen-style hero or a tragic Michael Corleone who will wind up running the whole show. Mae’s internal conflict should be an apt illustration for our modern tech predicament, but here it just feels confusing.
“The Circle” voices a valid concern — even if that concern might have felt more original around the time Sandra Bullock was confronting “The Net” — but Ponsoldt’s effort is so heavy-handed and obvious that it feels like a poor propaganda film. There’s never any question as to what is happening, and a story that would have been intriguing if unpacked gradually instead comes bursting ablaze into the theater waving red flags, while pretending to be coy.
Eggers co-wrote the screenplay with Ponsoldt, so somewhere along the way, one or both of them missed out on the value of subtlety. At times “The Circle’s” plot feels like a social satire, or an allegory, but its tone never matches the content. The scene where Mae is introduced to the company’s “PartiRank” (participation rank) program feels like a Funny or Die sketch, and somehow Mae is the only person on campus who seems to notice that her overworked drug-addict friend Annie literally looks like a vampire lurking in the back of her staff meetings.
The tough thing about “The Circle” is that its legitimate message should be relatable. Unfortunately, you can always leave a good idea stalled in the driveway.
“The Circle” is rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements, including drug use; running time: 110 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who also teaches English composition for Weber State University. You can also find him on <a href='https://www.youtube.com/moviereviewsbyjosh' target='_blank'>YouTube</a>.