The Circle is so deeply anchored "in the moment" that the filmmakers can never quite pull back and figure out what it is really about. Based on the 2013 bestseller by Dave Eggers (who cowrote the screenplay with director James Ponsoldt) and set largely inside a massive, hip Bay Area tech corporation that is like Apple, Google, and Facebook all rolled into one, it is simultaneously a satire of the new corporate culture and a cautionary tale about the dangers of digital "transparency." There are scattered moments that work wonderfully and move us close to some sense of underlying coherence, but then it all starts falling apart again, particularly the final act, which feels less like a conclusion and more like the filmmakers simply giving up.
Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, a bright twentysomething who is struggling to find her place in the world. She is saddled with temp work in customer service that doesn't pay enough to keep her old car running, much less allow her to help her mother (Glenne Headly) pay the medical bills for her father (Bill Paxton in one of his last roles), who is dealing with multiple sclerosis. Her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) has climbed high on the corporate ladder at The Circle, the aforementioned technology company whose signature achievement is an all-encompassing, integrative social media interface called TruYou, although they also design and produce hardware and aspire to a utopian future in which all data in the world is captured and made available for everyone. Annie scores Mae an interview, and she lands a job working in customer service, although she is soon elevated to a much high position in the company via her decision to go fully "transparent," meaning that she live-streams video of every second her life through a tiny mobile camera that The Circle is encouraging people to install around the world.
The company president, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), is gregarious, yet approachable; he holds monthly lectures/rallies with all the employers, and his soft gray beard and tendency toward zip sweaters make him the perfect embodiment of the new corporate structure that secretly maintains power hierarchies while fronting a sense of openness, collaboration, and community. That sense of community is very important at The Circle (whose employees are dubbed "Circle'rs"), to the point of being genuinely creepy when a pair of grinning surrogates show up at Mae's desk to cheerily inquire why she isn't spending literally every second of her life on The Circle's beautifully manicured "campus," which offers all manner of recreational activities and social events during and after work hours. The idea is that The Circle literally becomes your life, a pull that Mae finds hard to resist.
But that isn't really where The Circle is headed, although the idea of forced community being a strangle on one's personal identity is rich with possibility. Instead, what Ponsoldt and Eggers are really interested in is the tension between The Circle's utopian desire to make all information in the world accessible ("Knowing is good," Eamon says. "But knowing everything is better") and the inherent loss of privacy that such an endeavor entails, at least for the nave plebeians who buy into the idea that transparency equals equality (just like the politicians who exempt themselves from destructive legislation they pass off as being for the good of the people, those in charge at The Circle encourage radical openness while keeping their own secrets). The idea is that 21st-century oppression is not imposed by a dictatorial regime wielding violence, but rather offered to us disguised as a digital utopia of open access. Everything that is dangerous about The Circle is initially wrapped in a sense of optimism and global improvement, whether it be curing diseases or increasing voter turnout and spreading democracy. Again, there is a great deal of potential here, but most of it winds up squandered by clumsy plotting and a climax that supplies a ready dose of the underdog sticking it to the powers-that-be, but without any real sense of how any of it adds up. One might say that the ambiguity with which the film ends is essential to its cautionary nature, but it feels slack, rather than intriguing.
Up until now, Ponsoldt and Eggers have worked primarily on prominent indie films; Ponsoldt directed The Spectacular Now (2013) and The End of the Tour (2015), while Eggers cowrote the screenplays for Spike Jonze's surprisingly sensitive Where the Wilds Things Are and the dramedy Away We Go (both 2009). Faced with the mechanics of a mainstream thriller, they solve problems primarily by throwing in overly obvious narrative conveniences, including a mysterious employee played by John Boyega and a bad decision by Mae to go kayaking in the bay late at night. Similarly, Annie turns out to be a kind of surrogate for the film's warnings about the dangers of how shiny happy surfaces can hide stress, indoctrination, and personal destruction, but without any real sense of dramatic force, while Ella Coltrane (Boyhood) shows up from time to time as Mae's working-class childhood friend whose desire to keep things "real" (that is, not digital) makes him both a mouthpiece for everything that is anti-Circle and a martyr for just how dangerous things can become when the idea of transparency is forced on those who don't want it. A lot of good stuff here-maybe too much for one movie-but The Circle never quite makes it work.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © EuropaCorp USA
Overall Rating: (2)
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