‘The Circle” is proof the expression of ideas does not equal a movie. Based on the novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the script with director James Ponsoldt, it has something to say but lacks an interesting narrative with which to say it.
Emma Watson stars as Mae, an ordinary young woman who lands a coveted gig at The Circle, which we’re repeatedly told is the world’s best employer. Think Facebook meets Google meets Apple, with some Twitter and LinkedIn sprinkled on top.
The company offers top-tier benefits, including an apartment and hundreds of activities. It’s also more than a little intrusive, insisting employees swallow tracking chips so their every move can be monitored. When Mae goes to visit her parents for the weekend, she gets a visit from HR and a friendly demand to know about every detail of her trip. Co-workers casually bring up intimate details of her life, making it clear her business is their business.
A series of improbable events leads to Mae’s meteoric rise from customer service to the public face of the company, sharing a stage with The Circle co-founder Eamon Bailey.
Eamon is played by Tom Hanks, who makes him a warmer, amiable Steve Jobs but with more insidious aims. Hanks is consistently said to be America’s most trusted actor, which means his casting as a world-famous tech god trying to hoodwink society would have been great had the script given him something to do. Instead, he just smiles and lectures us on the need to forego privacy, the curtain never lifting and giving us a hint as to what makes this mysterious guy tick.
But initially, the film teases something great in its depiction of a near-omnipotent corporation bent on eliminating privacy.
Employing Orwellian language such as “secrets as lies,” the company gets people to submit to “1984”-style surveillance not with force, but with a friendly smile and appeal to ego. It’s a benevolent Stalinism that enforces standards through monitoring and shame, using a corporation instead of a government.
And it’s all plausible; think of how people share personal details on their public social media accounts they’d never share with a stranger in person, or the number of sites that hold our financial information.
Yet by the time the story reaches its sudden, unsatisfying conclusion, not much has been said that sticks. Sure, we’re told privacy in a digital age is key, but the film never makes a case for why.
Ponderous lectures on surveillance take the place of good dialogue to advance the story and explore themes. Meanwhile, the Hanks character states his case so well without an explicit rebuttal that it’s easy to see some leaving the theater on his side.
The characters don’t rise above archetypes. Watson sympathetically portrays Mae, but the character’s choices, like agreeing to surveillance of her entire life, come suddenly and without believable explanation. John Boyega, the charismatic young actor who shot to fame in “The Force Awakens,” has nothing to do with his co-founding character but slips in and out of the story exactly when it requires his presence. And the late Bill Paxton has sadly little to do as Mae’s sickly father.
It’s a shame. If the script had some better exposition and characters grounded in emotional reality, it might have been chilling and provocative.