Synopsis – A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover a nefarious agenda that will affect the lives of her friends, family and that of humanity.
My Take – What do you expect from a film starring Emma Watson & Tom Hanks in the lead, with a technology based relevant topic as its story line and a potential filled filmmaker? Something great right? Films about technology have been around for some time, while some have become classics (The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator), some remain under seen (The Net, Gattaca, Maximum Overdrive), some are watchable (Ex Machina, I Robot, Demon Seed), and some are just painfully bad (Transcendence). Like most of these films, this James Ponsoldt directed feature has a good idea in place, revolving around a relevant topic for the society that we live in today. In the technologically advanced times we live in, there is the struggle between embracing the technology and being all-consumed by it. People are monitored not just through their cell phones but every other device imaginable. Now the questions is, are we better off living on a planet were can prevent murders and kidnapping? Would that make us safer? And what would happen with the little things in life that we all take for granted, like enjoying the sunrise, first day in school, and falling in love purely with your hear, what if could succumb to living under the big brother inspecting eye, and end up losing all the little things that connected us to humanity. That is the central conflict of this film – should we become more consumed, monitored, guided by technology or is it already too invasive in our lives, robbing us of our privacy, intimacy and humanity, an interesting premise for discussion and could have been an interesting premise for a film. We are so immersed in this technology-based world now where we ourselves even wonder about some of the scenarios the film portrays, and that’s the biggest praise I can give this film. Other than that, this film is a sloppy mess full of dull characters, a really bad screenplay, and poor acting. The film even misses its mark by trying to stand on both sides of this issue, never coming down on one side or the other ending up with a confusing mess that left me befuddled, bewildered and somewhat angry that I spent two hours of my day watching this.
Based on the novel by author Dave Eggers, the story follows Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a lowly temp working at a customer service line for a local water company. She’s not necessarily happy with her line of work but it allows her time to see her mom Bonnie (Glenne Headly) and her dad Vinnie (Bill Paxton) who is unfortunately suffering from MS. She also bumps into her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) every once in a while and they trade arguments about the role of technology in modern day social interaction. However, Mae is incredibly excited when her a college friend, Annie (Karen Gillan), an employee herself, scores her an interview at the Circle, the world’s most powerful technology and social media company, with the popularity of Facebook and the innovative spirit of Apple. Mae’s fear of unfulfilled potential impresses the recruiters at The Circle and she lands the opportunity of a lifetime by starting off in the CE (Customer Experience – what the company calls their customer service department). As she works hard to get the average satisfaction rate for the customers she talks to on the phone as high as possible, she becomes overwhelmed by the corporate culture at the Circle. Not only do the (mostly youthful) employees enjoy the creature comforts and enjoyable diversions that have become a major feature of the modern workplace (especially in the tech sector), but she soon learns that the social aspects of working at the Circle are virtually all-consuming, especially when she meets a mysterious Circle employee (John Boyega), who warns her about being too involved. The Circle basically runs the lives of all of its employees – and knows everything about their lives. Mae is expected to update her personal social media accounts regularly and with all sorts of fun and social activities. While working, she’s expected to constantly correspond with all of her fellow employees through her computer, spend her leisure time with them and attend every party and social activity held on the Circle campus, where Mae lives in a type of dormitory. Company social representatives tell her that it’s all “strictly voluntary” and “just for fun”, but neither of those claims seems very honest. At the Circle’s weekly “Dream Friday” gathering of all employees, company co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) holds a kind of pep rally in which he talks about the corporate culture and plans for the future, brings guest speakers to the stage and unveils new products, a la Steve Jobs. When Bailey shows off The Circle’s marble-sized “See Change” cameras, which can be placed anywhere and transmit anything to everyone, he sells it as a way to motivate average people to behave better and hold people in power accountable. At first, Mae expresses concerns about the privacy implications, but when one of the cameras results in her being rescued from a dangerous situation; leading her to become the company’s poster child for universal transparency by joining Bailey & company co-founder, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) inner circle. She agrees to be the first person to “go transparent” and wear a See Change camera 24/7, with viewers around the world commenting in real time on her every action and activity. Unfortunately this decision will affect those closest to Mae and the negative ramifications will reach far beyond her inner circle and begin to impact humanity at large as sometimes, people just don’t want to be found or be social. There are 2 big reasons that this film doesn’t work. The first is that this film is as subtle as someone operating with a sledgehammer. We need The Circle’s goals to appear to at least be mixed at first. The audience needs to be intoxicated by their fancy gadgets and their potential to help the world. Yet soon after Mae starts her job, it becomes obvious that The Circle is reaching out way too far.
Seriously, the logic they use to justify their actions is a joke. This leads to a question: Why isn’t there any serious resistance from the public when The Circle’s actions grow more and more aggressive? They briefly bring up how the company possibly blackmailed a senator but then there isn’t any mention of it after. The subject of technology and social media being scary has been done over and over again. This film needed to bring something new to the table, yet it trips over every issue that this kind of techno thriller can’t ever hurdle. The film raises important privacy issues, but does it through a non-sensical story. Plus, the characters in this film are literally some of the dumbest characters I have ever seen. The main character Mae is just hollow & easily manipulated by Bailey and The Circle. She not only falls for this crap but she furthers it because she’s such a dunce. It just made the film seem even more divorced from reality. I’m not saying that social media is evil but in this film there is no such thing as a middle ground. Mae isn’t that interesting of a character to begin with and with her becoming a mouth piece for Bailey and The Circle, I lost all sympathy for her outside of her well-meaning parents. John Boyega‘s character had nothing to him, he went nowhere. Bailey, you knew he was gonna be this shady villain but hide it for the majority of the film, and that’s exactly what happened. I think I can see why James Ponsoldt, who previously took on and made excellent films out like The Spectacular Now & The End of the Tour, wanted to take on the material from Dave Eggers book, I haven’t read it, but one can tell this is a story filled with a megaton of ideas and ambition. The film highlights many issues faced by private citizens, governments, and digital data driven companies today; therefore, it sets the foundation for a film that could have been thought-provoking, but the writing hinders that ability. For everything the film has going for it, the weak screenplay keeps it from being the blockbuster that it so desperately wants to be. A great film typically begins with solid writing, and that is what’s missing here, after five minutes (or so it seems) of opening title, perhaps that is indirect evidence that there were just too many hands in the pot, each trying to take the film’s narrative in a different direction. There are other subplots that are nicely introduced, but never carried out as well. The third act in and of itself leaves audiences with a hurried ending that does little to provide closure to the narrative; however, it does support the film’s circular logic and irony. One particularly interesting theme in the film is deep friendship. Unfortunately, this was not fully fleshed as is the case with most of the film; but still, it does get touched upon. This film boasts some pretty impressive talent with up-and-coming stars Emma Watson and John Boyega. Add in A-lister Tom Hanks and you think this would be watchable project based solely on the performances. Even the big stars in the cast don’t help this film. I normally like Emma Watson but I didn’t like her in this at all. Her accent kept slipping and she couldn’t sell her character’s naivety, plus it’s seemed she was struggling to carry this film. I wish Tom Hanks had decided to try out being a villain in a better film. He’s got a lot of gravitas and he’s a good mix of inviting enough to trust yet menacing enough to be worried about, it’s too bad it’s obvious after the first 20 minutes that the film is up to no good. John Boyega is solid but the film gives him very little to do except drop exposition on the audience. I liked Karen Gillan but her character turns on a dime. Patton Oswalt is there just as a background character and a yes man for Hanks. In smaller roles, Bill Paxton and Ellar Coltrane are alright. On the whole, ‘The Circle’ is a sloppy, uneven and unsettling film let down by its ridiculous script and disappointing performances.
Directed – James Ponsoldt
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 110 minutes