The Circle (2017)

04/29/2017  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

Imagine a world where your every movement is recorded, all your social interactions are graded on a global bell curve, and anyone in the world can find you in minutes. Now pretend that isn’t already the world we live in. Now imagine a movie that delivers this marketing pitch every twenty minutes in between sequences demonstrating why this exact thing is almost certainly evil. That’s The Circle in a nutshell. This is a movie that puts forward moral conundrums worth exploring, but it never finds a suitable conflict to attach those ideas to.

It’s more a dramatized TED Talk than an actual thriller.

When Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is plucked from temp agency obscurity for a customer service job with The Circle, she’s hurled headfirst into a company where social transparency reigns supreme. As Mae immerses herself deeper into this company, she discovers how insidious it really is. The company chews up her friend Alice (Karen Gillian), an executive who is apparently never allowed to sleep, invades the privacy of Mae’s parents (Bill Paxton, Glenne Headly), and refuses to give her a private moment to herself. She’s soon forced into a Truman Show situation where her every waking moment is broadcast to the world. Watson is excellent in these sequences, as Mae suddenly has to host her entire life, and she conveys just the slightest hint of terror underneath everything she does.

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Big Brother is always watching, but at least you’re allowed to browse Facebook at work now.

The Circle is a tech company combining the mobile saturation of Apple, the social networking clout of Facebook and the cloud computing capabilities of Google. With cameras tracking its employees’ every move, and social gatherings that double as mandatory team building (but, as they stress, all in good fun), The Circle comes across more like a cult than a business. This is the world presented to us by director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour) and co-writer Dave Eggers, who seem to have both a healthy fascination with and an unwavering contempt for modern tech culture. All interactions are driven through The Circle’s Facebook analog, TruYou, and a person’s social standing is ranked on a leaderboard. It’s basically exactly how we all view social media anyway, with a dash of crazy tinfoil hat conspiracy theory.

Enter Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), co-founder of The Circle. Bailey gives weekly presentations highlighting the company’s latest innovations and ideas. In his first talk, he introduces marble-sized cameras that will revolutionize surveillance by transmitting HD video via satellite to The Circle’s cloud network. He doesn’t explain how the company could possibly support that kind of bandwidth, nor does he seem particularly concerned by what a massive violation of privacy he’s suggesting. He just grabs a handful of cameras out of a big bucket and starts throwing them at people. Hanks plays Eamon like a more cuddly Steve Jobs. He has big ideas on how to change the world, and they all start with finding a better way to go surfing. You want to believe in him so badly, because how could you ever doubt a Tom Hanks who just wants to catch some waves?

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“What if I told you I watched every one of these people poop this morning?”

It’s during this presentation that the first giant red flag should be going up in the viewer’s head.

Pint-sized HD cameras everywhere? That sounds great, but do we really want that many cameras watching us all the time? Who is this information being fed to, and what do they want with it? These are perfectly valid questions, and the movie teases us with possible answers. Patton Oswalt is on hand as Eamon’s business partner to assure us that the company has complete political backing for their work (red flag #2!). Every new development only serves to raise more questions, and soon it becomes clear that The Circle is more interested in posing discussion questions than actually attempting to answer any of them. It’s like a cautionary video you’d watch in a social studies class. Turn to page 14 and write a short essay on how you would exploit your best friend’s biometric data.

Don’t think for a moment that The Circle actually builds to a dramatic climax, because it certainly does not. Enter another Circle employee, Ty (John Boyega), who’s been suspicious of the company for a long time. Ty sees Mae as an opportunity to finally reveal the truth about The Circle. What truth, exactly? It is never revealed. The movie either forgets to develop its third act, or never had designs on doing so in the first place. John Boyega, who usually seems so excited to even be in the movies, appears visibly bored here, like he already knows they’re just going to waste his character. When we first meet him, he’s too busy checking his phone to notice the party going on around him. Of course, there’s a narrative reason for this, but I’m halfway convinced Boyega wasn’t acting. Despite playing him up as a central character with a rich conflict, The Circle completely cuts his legs out from under him.

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“Should I… No? Okay, I’m just gonna go back to bed, then.”

There is some dark truth and Eamon does not want it getting out, but that’s one detail the script conveniently ignores. Maybe we’re supposed to fill in that blank ourselves. It’s not hard to imagine the sorts of things companies are doing with our search histories. One time I did an Amazon search for “penguin costumes” (don’t ask), and a picture of a toddler dressed as a penguin followed me around the internet for the next three weeks. Good speculative fiction is supposed to put forward questions about our future, but a good movie is also supposed to follow through with a compelling answer. The Circle only gets us halfway there, completely failing to find the drama in a global surveillance state.

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An Exploration of the Ethics of Social Media
Emma Watson's Natural Charisma
Big Questions With No Answers
A Complete Lack of Conflict
A Criminal Waste of John Boyega

About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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