This is hardly a new revelation, but the Internet is pretty goddamn terrifying if you actually take a step back and look at it. More and more of our memories have become tethered to it, from schedules to photographs to remnants of our lost loved ones. Every day brings a new innovation that connects us in another way, whether we want it or not. The dystopia we used to imagine by way of Ray Bradbury novels is here; it’s just friendlier than we imagined.
That terror has seen a pop cultural groundswell over the past several years, from the Twilight Zone-esque nightmare scenarios of Black Mirror to the passive, woefully sad world of convenience imagined in Her. It’s a phobia that’s at once hyper-modern and timeless in its humanity, the anxieties of a world where people are at once the most and least connected to others that they’ve ever been. And in The Circle, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel, that fear is entirely founded. In the film’s purview, the growing ranks of millennials and Google are here to usher us into the surveillance state that Orwell once cautioned against.
If that idea feels as though it’s simultaneously eerie in its truth and histrionic in its alarmism, then you’re on the way to understanding why long stretches of The Circle are oddly ineffective, given the film’s unsettling premise. After Mae (Emma Watson) is offered an interview/impromptu psychological test for The Circle, a digital media giant with projects in every imaginable discipline around the world, she immediately quits her call center job and looks forward to becoming part of an unbelievably perfect team. As her harried best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) suggests in her initial tour, The Circle encourages its employees to become their most optimized selves, offering a staggering wealth of self-improvement courses and a constant, aggressive connection with one’s peers and the larger world beyond.
But all is not as it seems. Soon after arriving, Mae is scolded for not immediately becoming part of each of the company’s obsessively detailed social media verticals. The work never truly stops, even as it’s given all manner of other names beside “work.” The rating system used to gauge Mae’s customer service work hangs over her head as a constant reminder of her success or failure at pleasing people as quickly as possible. And that’s all before she meets cute with John Boyega’s mysterious employee, who doesn’t seem to have as high an opinion of Bailey (Tom Hanks), the front-facing company head, as everyone else. For some, Bailey’s joyous proclamation that “knowing is good, but knowing everything is better” has a darker side.
The Circle attempts to argue for both sides of its passive doomsday scenario, at least to a point. While there’s something instantly off-putting about the Circle’s fixation on automating every aspect of daily life, there’s joy in Mae’s ability to help her ailing father (Bill Paxton) with his MS through the company’s ongoing biological research, or in a Bay Area politician’s announcement that she’ll use Circle technology to make the political process transparent in a way it’s never been. On the other hand, Mae’s friend/occasional paramour Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) doesn’t like being dragged into the infinite digital space by proxy, and when Mae suffers a near-death experience while attempting to go off the grid for a while, she ends up “going transparent” and simulcasting every moment of her day, every single day, to a chorus of well-wishes from strangers around the world. From early on, the contradiction is made plain: life has never been simpler, but at a price.
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Mae’s slow descent into the absolute visibility of digital life is where The Circle begins to unravel. For a time, Ponsoldt and Eggers’ screenplay yields a heavy-handed take on full-service web titans and the doublespeak of Internet buzzwords, and struggles to generate intrigue from either. Some of the film’s early signs of discontent are effective enough, particularly an extended pseudo-interrogation about why Mae wants to spend time alone when she could connect with others instead, but The Circle frequently delivers its messages about digital narcissism with a bludgeon. Mae doesn’t so much drink the company Kool-Aid as inhale it, and Watson’s sharp transition from a chipper-but-skeptical employee to an oblivious company drone talking of how “secrets are what make crimes possible” is implausible at best.
The Circle aims for slow-building dread, but Ponsoldt’s direction and the script are both so uncharacteristically stiff that the film’s tone never solidifies. For a filmmaker who’s shown a remarkable aptitude in recent years for verbose, character-minded dramas (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour), Ponsoldt seems adrift here, rushing through character introductions at the expense of later revelations and struggling to execute the story’s notes of bitter satire and future-shock panic throughout. The dialogue is often bluntly expository, and the film tends to assume that audiences will meet its endless tech-industry buzz-speak with suspicion and contempt, rather than earning those responses.
For such a uniformly gifted cast, The Circle often seems equally unsure of what to do with its actors. Hanks’ genial presence is perfect on paper for an exploitative tech executive, but is barely fleshed out beyond that initial description. Patton Oswalt’s shadowy founder appears long enough to reimagine democracy as a completely open book bereft of privacy, and nearly disappears thereafter. Gillan adds a weary soul to her burnt-out executive assistant, but is likewise barely a character beyond the stock type of the “overworked millennial.” (If this weren’t cemented by her growing lack of makeup and frayed hair, Annie declares openly at one point that “I’m really so far behind on everything, I could just die.”) Boyega’s presence is minimal, and Paxton and Glenne Headly are woefully underused as Mae’s parents. And while Watson tries her best to wade through the film’s on-the-nose dialogue, her leading turn isn’t exactly commanding after a while, to say nothing of one of the more distinctly off-key American accents in recent film history.
While its central scenario is relevant enough, The Circle never draws clear enough boundaries on where the rueful irony ends and the genuine concern begins. Even tabling the number of logical issues that crop up in a film that introduces bite-sized cameras early and then has characters disappear completely when convenient, Ponsoldt often renders his world so lovingly that many of the reasonably unnerving moments later in the film fail to register as the jarring shocks they’re clearly supposed to be. (Mae is surrounded by a constant stream of comments on every aspect of her life, but most are positive and affirming in a way that an ostensible Twitter feed about a person’s life wouldn’t see.) The film chases arch realism even as its story machinations grow in absurdity, and its tragedies and ironies are presented so flatly that if Ponsoldt and Eggers didn’t frequently have its characters voice the film’s thematic contradictions aloud, The Circle would read as borderline celebratory of its “utopia.”
This isn’t to say that there aren’t moments when The Circle finds the right note; the revelation of a crowdsourced tracking software for the real-time capture of fleeing criminals is appropriately disturbing, for one. But far more often than not, the film’s drama falls short, and even a hoary last-second attempt to add a memorably dystopic final image rings false. For an adaptation of a novel published during the rise of the digital era, The Circle’s dialogues about the evils of over-modernization feel oddly dated, particularly as it relates to the film’s regard for millennials as morally bankrupt tech addicts, willing to endanger somebody’s life for social points. (It’s a plausible enough idea in a Facebook Live world, but one the film scarcely justifies on its own merits.) The Circle means to utilize its many clichés as a grave warning about Where Technology Is Taking Us. Instead, it emerges as the kind of hamfisted screed that the target audience for its message will laugh off before returning to their own Circles.