‘The Circle’ is a Disconnected Tech Drama

GameStop, Inc.

The Circle

Technology has become an increasing part of our life over the past couple of decades. The speed with which new technology is introduced into our lives comes at such a fast pace that society is often unprepared for the unintended consequences that each new innovation brings. Just in the past few weeks there have been stories of grisly crimes committed and streamed over social media for all to see. It would seem that a cautionary tale about the shedding of privacy for a world of unlimited connectivity would be apt for these times. Director James Ponsoldt attempts to do such with The Circle, his adaptation of the novel by Dave Eggers. With an all-star cast, a talented director, and the author co-writing the screenplay, you’d think that The Circle just couldn’t miss. You would be wrong. The Circle has a number of big ideas hovering around it but there’s a lacking to its execution that prevents the film from ever becoming a compelling story.

Mae (Emma Watson) is struggling to stay afloat in the world. She works as a temp for the local water company and spends her evening with her parents Bonnie (Glenne Headly) and Vinne (Bill Paxton), who is also suffering from multiple sclerosis. One day Mae receives a call from her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) who has landed her a job at The Circle, an exciting tech company that is on the cutting edge. Upon starting at The Circle, Mae is swept up into the company’s inclusive culture that includes an assortment of benefits, some of which are available to help her ailing father, and the inspirational speeches and product presentations of the company’s founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). He has just unveiled a new camera that is the size of marble called SeeChange, a set of eyes and ears that can be planted and watched anywhere in the world. The ethical ramifications of such technology are never once muttered and Mae finds herself falling deeper and deeper into the cult-like culture of The Circle. On the outskirts of this bubble of technological innovation is Ty (John Boyega), who created TruYou, one The Circle’s most revolutionary platforms, though he’s troubled by the turn the company has taken.

Things begin to change for Mae once she’s rescued from kayaking accident thanks to the surveillance of the SeeChange. The young woman who started in customer service will now be the face of The Circle by wearing a camera on her at all times, broadcasting her life on the internet for millions to see. This endears her to Eamon and his fellow executive Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). Becoming the face of tech company does have its downside, including straining her relationship with her parents, a stressed out and overworked Annie, as well as her childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). All the while the breadth of The Circle keeps on expanding and expanding, forever blurring the line between public and private.

The biggest problem facing the screenplay by Ponsoldt and Eggers is the distance they keep from the characters. We’re given personal details about Mae’s life but we’re never taken deeper into her mind, so later in the film her decisions are pretty confounding. They’re unable to provide us with a deeper motivation for Mae to broadcast her entire life. As far as the movie is concerned, the perks of her employment are enough to get her to fully delve into this morally murky quandary. That same distance is extended to almost all of the characters within The Circle. Of course we’re led to believe that there’s something off about this tech company, but there’s no depth to Hanks’ Eamon and Boyega’s Ty is pretty much an extended cameo. It makes the movie a series of interesting ideas that never coalesce into a gripping whole because we can’t understand the people behind the technology.

Of all the characters, the most interesting is the supporting character of Annie. At first she’s an exuberant workaholic that has fully bought into life within The Circle. Soon she starts to feel the wear of her work schedule that her jetting around the globe with little sleep. She starts to take pharmaceutical speed and the burgeoning success and popularity of Mae strains her fragile psyche. Unfortunately, Annie fades from the picture as the film finally makes its way towards its climax.

It’s also odd how the movie fails to acknowledge the larger implications of its fictional technology, operating as if these advances that would minimize privacy would be broadly accepted without some kind of backlash. There is a struggle that’s just never explored in any meaningful context, though there’s certainly a failed attempt to do so towards the film’s conclusion. Think of how reticent people are over app updates and apply that to a company that wants to introduce a system of compulsory voter registration and voting. There’s simply no way that could unilaterally be implemented, but you wouldn’t know that by watching The Circle.

The most fascinating parts of The Circle come from the cult-like environment of the company’s campus where the employees rarely leave because everyone lives on site in their dorms and are occasionally entertained by Beck concerts. The relatively few moments of levity in the film come from the enthusiastic groupthink of the employees as they try to push Mae towards using more the company’s social media products. Later in the film when Mae is broadcasting her life, the screen is filled with real time comments that fill the screen. There are plenty of laughs reading over some of the more oddball comments that are probably the closest to any form realism that The Circle ever achieves.

When it’s all said and done, The Circle is a disappointment because there’s just so much on the mind of James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers that but it never comes together into anything impactful. The connectivity of the internet and the prevalence of social media isn’t going away any time soon, and there are always aspects of it that are troubling or raise serious ethical questions. But The Circle is a movie unsure exactly what questions it wants to be asking and has absolutely no clue on how it wants to answer them. It’s hard to comment on the connected world when the story is so disconnected.

The Circle
  • Overall Score
2

Summary

With a talented director, an all-star cast, and a cautionary tale of the increasing role of technology, The Circle should be tailor-made for our times but gets lost in a drama that is disconnected from its characters.

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