The Circle has a thought-provoking premise, but it never breaks out of the tedium to resolve dramatic tension or leave us with an aptly foreboding conclusion.
Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is a 20-something college graduate stranded in boring office work while her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton) couldn’t afford to cope with her father’s multiple sclerosis. Out of sympathy, her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) introduces her to an interview with The Circle, a corporation whose goal is to merge technologies into every facet of life. Mae then successfully lands a job in Customer Experience (a fancier substitute for Customer Service).
Her outlook changes as Mae is exposed to The Circle’s workplace environment, particularly the ostensible speeches of inspiration from Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). Bailey is one of the company’s founders known as “Two Wise Men”—together with Patton Oswald’s Tom Stenton. Mae, criticized by her childhood friend Mercer (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane), soon finds comfort in a mysterious man on campus named Kalden (John Boyega) before he expresses concern about The Circle utilizing their technological advancement to push the boundary of freedom and privacy.
Director James Ponsoldt and author Dave Eggers penned the script—based on the eponymous novel by Eggers himself. In the form of a cautionary tale, this movie reconstructs many a familiar question about the status quo in which humans are becoming more and more attached with mechanization. Through Mae’s eyes, audiences move closer to a composition of tech-related problems that are ubiquitous—almost institutionalized—in modern life.
Mae starts relatively reserved about her personal life but quickly conforms to the routine of sharing and partying through the weekend. This transition is marked by a lengthy exposition from two of Mae’s colleagues, which tries to depict the collective obsession with group involvement but fails miserably due to their copious dialogues—also poorly edited shots and camera positioning. In the spotlight are aspects of online activities, notably the corporate hunger for customer data. In one of few scenes made appealing by Hanks, Bailey highlights and encourages the need for putting private information on public display—“Sharing is Caring”, “Privacy is Theft”, and such. He introduces The Circle’s newest device, SeeChange, a conveniently tiny piece of data-collecting, eyeball-like camera, and the response from his audience is solely fascination upon a miracle of modern technology. With its satellite-connected service and continuous HD feed, Bailey claims the responsibility for social justice. By the slogan “Secret Are Lies”, this device is supposed to be a metaphor but its delivery on film medium is too in-the-face.
We all know the rest: individual interests of all kinds are gathered for market segmentation. In the post-Snowden era when the specter of surveillance is still lurking around, issues pinpointed by the movie are still relevant, and the context is nearing an Orwellian future, where civil rights are no more.
Sequentially, Mae is sucked into The Machine’s groupthink, but her change of heart happens too abruptly before audiences get a chance to observe a fully developed lead character. We keep hoping she would be either a strong heroine fighting against the corporate greed or a bland cardboard character going with the flow. Instead, Mae waddles exactly in between those two zones and only serves as a window to follow the plot. Lacking moments of contemplation, her character doesn’t have any opinions about situations, and Watson’s acting also couldn’t drive the plot with convincing sensitivity.
The story means to take a jab at the Silicon-Valley-based companies by zeroing in on a Google-ish tech giant and a Jobsian mogul (Bailey), but the way Ponsoldt chose to illustrate these issues is stiffly dull. Praised after features like Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and The End of the Tour, Ponsoldt (as a director) can’t handle this kind of thematically dialogue-based contrivance. He is more qualified for the intimate delicacy of workaday human conditions. Therefore, the storyline is easy to follow (again, expository talks) but lacks the hard-hitting moments to sell its ideas. And again, poor editing and camera positioning play their parts in the messy structure of The Circle. It constantly breaks the 180-degree principle during conversations with no psychological or thematic intention at all. Those dialogues become boring shots, like ones in the restrooms or during a webcam chat. There’s another scene with Mae and Kalden that has freaky camera movements—as if it was done just because Ponsoldt could. With a plot-driven approach, The Circle is a case on how the main character isn’t allowed to take an active role to create her agency.
In comparison with Eggers’ book, the movie pays little attention to key changes in Mae as the writers skipped various important developments. Instead of showing Mae slowly sinking in, the movie brushes through the process of her decision to stay the weekend or go kayaking after Mercer calls her out on the spot. Ponsoldt watered down Mae’s whole conversion to being brainwashed, and the decision to go transparent 24/7, which makes her the literal poster child for the invasion of privacy, doesn’t come as a shock.
As a result of this omission, the 493-page novel feels crammed into a narrow window of 100 minutes. Had it been adapted into a TV miniseries, the outcome would’ve been much more acceptable. The direction is also fundamentally different as characters’ humanity is forced into the story without enough credible insights (a worrisome issue of adaptations), deviating from the overarching theme about average people with reliance on technologies and no independent thinking. The cast, aside from Hanks, couldn’t breathe life into their lackluster characters, leading up to a cliché ending with a generic tension-inducing score. Unlike Mae walking out of the room with confidence and a joyful “screw you” attitude, audiences walked out of theaters puzzled and quickly forgot the movie.
Technology itself isn’t evil, but how deep we let the convenience involve with our lives is the urgent matter. The Circle has a thought-provoking premise, but it never breaks out of the tedium to resolve that dramatic tension or leave us with an aptly foreboding conclusion as the book did. There aren’t any consequences in their world—just a bunch of scenes where these techies have meetings and public announcements. Like a prosaic Black Mirror episode that ends in bad taste, The Circle has what Mae fears the most: unfulfilled potential.
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