The Circle review

“Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” So goes the mantra of Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) one of the men in charge of technology giant The Circle. James Ponsoldt’s film, names after the company, imagines an organization not too far from reality, a powerful but potentially unholy blend of Google and Facebook, with maybe a bit of Disney thrown in.

Based upon Dave Egger’s prescient novel, the film, which Eggers helped adapt to screen, is a sometimes insightful but ultimately fairly mundane examination of the question, what would the world look like if we valued knowledge and access to information as a right above privacy?

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a talented young woman wasting her youth (and her art history degree) working for the local utility company and living with her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles). But Mae’s life changes when her long-term friend Annie (Karen Gillan) snags her an interview with the most powerful and trendy tech company on the planet. It’s the kind of place that features weekly Ted-esque innovation talks, Friday night concerts from Beck and more clubs and activities than one could possibly do in a lifetime.

Mae succeeds in getting a job in Customer Experience, where many budding circlers start their meteoric careers. She is, at first, predictably overwhelmed. There’s her customer satisfaction score (1-100), as well as her social circle account (like Facebook, but with a specific popularity rank number tied to it). Then, there’s her weekend trips to her parent’s to help take care of her ailing MS-diagnosed father. Between all this, the poor girl barely has time to indulge in her favorite activity: kayaking.

But none of this is enough to stop Mae’s determination. Her work ethic soon gets the attention of Bailey and fellow company leader Tom (Patton Oswalt), along with the mysterious Ty (John Boyega), who warns her that abandoning privacy completely and “completing the circle” will have an irreversible cost.

Mae is skeptical. Look at what good The Circle is doing for humanity. We’re on our way to complete transparency, where tiny marble-sized cameras can be placed anywhere and camouflaged, unseen to the naked eye. With everyone afraid of getting caught, crime could be almost eliminated overnight. No more theft, no more shootings, no more dictators committing massive human rights violations. The Circle envisions a perfect utopia of accountability, where people behave within the confines of law and decency, because the only other choice is to be seen and known. There will be no shadows to hide in, and that is something Mae wants desperately to be a part of, no matter the cost. As Mae rises through the ranks of The Circle, she is forced to consider the moral imperative of the company’s efforts, along with its potential pitfalls.

Eggers’ and Ponsoldt’s script follows all of the main beats from the novel, and in a few cases adds some interesting twists to the equation. But the story still feels rushed; even with the elimination of some extraneous plot threads, there are so many interesting characters that don’t feel like full flesh-and-blood people. This somewhat deadens the emotional impact of some of the film’s more dramatic scenes.

The Circle raises some provocative questions in the information age, but doesn’t have enough gripping character moments to sustain interest.

This missed opportunity extends to the acting (and I’m not just talking about Watson’s dubious American accent). There is a very talented cast here, but many of the major players feel underutilized. Oswalt, Boyega and Hanks don’t get as much screen time as they deserve, and, when the film’s revelations are brought to light, we still don’t know much about their backgrounds or how they play into the proceedings.

The visuals are the film’s most interesting bullet point. The screen is often filled with pop up messages commenting on events in a variety of languages. This commentary is sometimes relevant but often delightfully random, and it contributes to the film’s growing sense of unease and dread over just how invasive technology can be. Without giving much away, this visual element is directly tied to a major story point, so it feels natural but never excessive or distracting.

One of the film’s major faults may lie with its marketing. The previews sold The Circle as a techno-thriller, with Mae discovering shady dealings inside the company and speaking out about them. That’s not what happens in the book, and I’m thankful that the film sticks closer to Mae’s inner moral conundrum regarding the necessary limitations of technology. But, this type of story is decidedly smaller and less high-stakes, and those looking for a grand conspiracy at the center of the story should check their expectations.

Egger’s script is also a bit softer and less acerbic than his novel, and that is most prevalent in the character of Mae. In the book, she turns from an idealistic young go-getter into a complete monster, alienating her family and friends for the “greater good” of the company, but the film makes her decidedly more sympathetic. I recall a great sense of tragedy reading about this slow moral degradation, but the film misses out on that character arc. Making Mae into a slightly more heroic figure probably makes the film more commercially palatable, but it also makes it less interesting. Her mixed motivations muddy the message a bit, particularly in the ending, which is still kind of cool but takes her ultimate decision in a different direction.

The Circle asks some extremely important questions, ones well worth mulling on. Are there some things we are not meant to know? What are the limits of science and technology in a connected world, if there are any? Is knowledge more important than privacy? Where is the line between privacy and secrecy? The film does an admirable job tackling these big questions, but it does so at the expense of truly interesting and memorable characters. It’s a fine film, but the center of this circle feels a bit hollow.