Earlier this year, a movie starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson quietly snuck into theaters with little fanfare before quickly fading away. The Circle, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of the novel by Dave Eggers, was savaged by critics upon its release and gained no traction at the box office. But was The Circle the all-encompassing disaster that its reputation suggests? Not quite. It may not be a particularly good movie but it’s ambitious misfire that has a lot on its mind and doesn’t always know how to get these ideas out there in a compelling manner.
Mae (Watson) has been struggling to get by working as a temp in her little town in Northern California. A lifeline is thrown her way when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) gets her a job interview at The Circle, a massive tech conglomerate headed by their charismatic CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks). The Circle exists on an expansive campus with dorms, parties, and inspirational speeches by their dear leader in this technological cult-like environment. Eamon Bailey and the COO of The Circle, Stenton (Patton Oswalt), speak in grand terms about the needs for transparency, though The Circle itself has an emphasis on secrecy. As she makes her way through the corporate world of The Circle, Mae propels towards the top of the company when she becomes the first person to be fully transparent, broadcasting her life on the internet for all to see like a voluntary version of The Truman Show. This, however, brings a number of complications into Mae’s personal and professional life, as well as the tech giant of The Circle.
Where The Circle runs into trouble is how it portrays the encroaching invasion of privacy by this tech conglomerate with little push back from citizens or government, such as a proposed plan that would allow citizens to vote through their Circle account. The same is true of the tech company’s plans for an all-seeing, invisible camera and the social network that allows countless humans to view the information. There’d be a pushback against this and The Circle doesn’t even want to give these legitimate concerns lip service.
Instead The Circle opts to portray these technological advances in a dark light that borders on parody at times. Annie goes through an extended meltdown as Mae rises the ladder, but there’s a disconnect to this character that we’re never given the understanding of this meltdown. Or then there’s the tragic case of Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who’s pushed to the brink with a technological invasion that he’s uninterested in. When it comes to the dark secrets of this tech giant, the film underwhelms in the form of Ty (John Boyega), a former innovator who has grave concerns about the company. It’s easy to see why The Circle was savaged so viscously from my critical brethren because it sets up a number of interesting threads that don’t come to fruition in an interesting manner. But I’ll always take a movie of failed ambition over playing it safe and formulaic.
The Blu-ray for The Circle features a couple of featurettes about the world of Silicon Valley and the furthering of technology as well as a four-part examination of the making of The Circle. There’s also a featurette about the life of the great Bill Paxton, who died suddenly before the film’s release meaning that this would be his last onscreen role. Sadly, just a few months later, co-star Glenne Headly, who played Paxton’s wife in the film, would also pass away, meaning that The Circle would feature some of the last performances of these great, charismatic actors.
Technology will continue to encroach further and further into our lives as each day brings about new innovation that is constantly changing how we live. People should be cautious about what unintended consequences might arise from technological advances, and art will be there to put up a mirror for society to examine. The Circle attempts to be a cautionary tale of tech gone awry but the film itself goes a bit awry, failing to bring its threads together into a meaningful whole. It’s the second film in successive years featuring Tom Hanks in an adaptation of a Dave Eggers novel, following last year’s A Hologram for the King. The Circle is so frustratingly close to being something meaningful, something profound, and yet it never finds it. It may not be a good movie, but it’s not quite the disaster that it’s made out to be.