Since the election, tech and media companies have asked hard questions about their roles in our democracy. The Circle picks up these same questions, as well as those about privacy, sharing, and the value of all those likes, hearts, and emojis.
The Circle takes place at a fictional tech company of the same name, and clearly a cross between Facebook and Google. The company campus is even situated approximately where Facebook’s headquarters sits in real life. Mae (Emma Watson) lands a job at The Circle thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), an executive at the company. For Mae, still living at home with her parents (Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton) who are struggling with her father’s MS, the job is a major boon. Quickly, the job takes over Mae’s life as she moves on campus after pressure to take part more in the social life of the company. After a confrontation with her old, low-tech friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) and a little bit of troublemaking, Mae “goes transparent,” broadcasting her whole life to members of The Circle. As tensions rise and The Circle begins to expand its reach into politics, Mae has to decide how much she values privacy and whether or not she can support the mission of The Circle.
My biggest impression of The Circle is that I need to read the book. I have many problems with how the story unfolded, and they lead me to wonder if the film is just a really poor adaptation of Dave Eggers’s novel. Initially, The Circle grated on my nerves because of how it represents everything obnoxious about the tech industry. The hero worship, company speak and traffic gave me flashbacks to the brief period when I lived in Silicon Valley. That annoyance, however, works in favor of the film’s central conflict. Much of the action, however, does not. The Circle sets up some interesting and relevant questions about the value of privacy vs. transparency, solitude vs. community, and digital vs. in-person interactions. It also poses a compelling conflict when The Circle toys with the idea of tying voter registration to Circle accounts, making having an account, and voting, compulsory. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, the film drops many of these conflicts, failing to take them very far. It seems as though the story is headed in one direction, then it abruptly shifts in what I’m guessing was supposed to be a twist ending but instead felt like an unearned cop-out.
The acting in The Circle is also pretty weak. I loved Emma Watson as Hermione in the Harry Potter movies, but much of her work since then has looked like a high school play (no offense, high schoolers). She has great stage presence that makes her performance very strong when she is giving presentations at the tech company, but when she has to cry or act scared, the result is not moving. Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt play the CEO and COO of the company. Their performances also look a little forced, but I would love to see them paired together as big bads in a better production.
Perhaps the most consistently good element of the film is how it contrasts technology and offline experiences. Mae’s family and friends live in a more rural, working-class community that rarely gets featured in Silicon Valley stories and shows Eggers’s familiarity with the area. The technology imagined in the film looks flashy but also seems very plausible in the near future. The film opens and closes with Mae kayaking in the bay, and the differences between those two scenes are a little chilling and one of the more effective storytelling moves the film uses.
Overall, I was disappointed with The Circle. It could have been much more coherent and thrilling than it was, had it had better acting and a more consistent narrative trajectory. I will just have to read the book. 2/5 stars.
The Circle was directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on his novel of the same title. It runs 110 minutes and is rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language, and some thematic elements including drug use.
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