REVIEW: ‘The Circle’ makes a fuzzy argument for Internet privacy…then against it

John Boyega and Emma Watson in  The Circle , directed by James Ponsoldt.

John Boyega and Emma Watson in The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt.

The urge to decode our relationship with technology is a powerful one. We want to know why we invest so much time in our online presence. We wonder whether it’s a good idea for tech companies to step in when governments or other institutions let us down. We worry if part of what makes us human is getting stripped away.

It makes sense to explore this stuff through movies. Sometimes, to fully appreciate an issue, it helps to detach it from our own experience and see how a cast of characters would deal with it. Maybe we can even exaggerate a bit, just to question what’s possible and where we might end up.

So along comes The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, Smashed) a movie that joins a burgeoning line of releases that caution against taking our online connectedness too far. The Circle’s worried about our privacy, or so it says. Once we get past the trendy office interiors and twenty-somethings who are “so excited to be here”, the movie soon flip-flops, claiming to have made privacy obsolete, or something like that. One-note characters recite industry buzzwords, failing to sell us on the possibility that anything the movie threatens will actually happen. Like the worst Internet comment sections, the movie has no idea what it wants to do or how to achieve it.

As the film opens, Ponsoldt (working from a screenplay he adapted with Dave Eggers, from Eggers’ novel) shows how The Circle has woven itself into every aspect of its users’ lives. The company doesn’t seem to offer them much more than they would get from a real-life social platform, but it quietly absorbs everything it can about its community, later putting the data to use for seemingly altruistic (and maddeningly vague) purposes, like observing political revolutions, tracking disasters…or helping its CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) find some sick breakers to surf, dude.

Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey, CEO of The Circle.

Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey, CEO of The Circle.

In short, the company is your typical Hollywood hodgepodge of Facebook, Apple and Google, but in trying to seem like a unified, single-solution version of these companies, The Circle reads like a big nothing. The movie alternates between encouraging us to see The Circle as a great opportunity, then as a cult, then as a flawed entity in need of renewal. Because the movie never fully throws its lot in with any of these identities, it’s hard to feel either impressed or disturbed about it, or to make any meaningful connections between The Circle and the platforms we use.

One of the company’s new hires is Mae (Emma Watson), an average millennial with limited prospects who grabs a “customer experience” job at The Circle. She soon gets wrapped up in the potential of working at the company, including all the social good they want to do. Even her parents begin to benefit, as The Circle extends health insurance to Mae’s father, giving him access to treatment for his multiple sclerosis symptoms. But the longer Mae works at the company, the clearer it becomes that The Circle wants to replace Mae’s real life with 24/7 life on its campus, all while pushing forward with plans to document and analyze the entire world.

Mae is soon offered the chance at a promotion, only it means livestreaming her entire life (with laughable 3-minute bathroom breaks) from a wearable camera. She soon transforms into a puppet for the company ideology, except we’re never told why Mae makes this decision, or why some of the influential “Circlers” she encounters, like Ty (John Boyega) or Annie (Karen Gillan) suddenly seem disillusioned with the company.

Later, when Mae suffers a tragedy due to The Circle’s technology, she oh-so-briefly questions The Circle, only to pull off some sort of ambiguous takeover of the company, claiming to have a vision for how to improve it; the movie then neglects to show us what exactly she did or how it differed from what the company was doing before. If you aren’t looking closely, you’d swear this sloppiness was an intentional parody of a TED Talk – except it’s meant earnestly, a confusing bow to put on an already baffling assembly of contradictions.

Mae's concerns are brought before a less-than-genuine Bailey and Stenton (Patton Oswalt).

Mae's concerns are brought before a less-than-genuine Bailey and Stenton (Patton Oswalt).

The ideas in The Circle are, in broad strokes, entirely viable material. Here and there, the movie makes some helpful observations on our strange attraction to YouTube vloggers or the potentially troubling intersections between governments, tech companies and the democratic process. But this isn’t enough to make up for the movie’s poorly sketched characters – the movie wastes its supporting cast, especially Boyega, Hanks and Patton Oswalt – or the film’s failure to choose which side it’s on.

Movies about the tech world are often criticized as hand-wringing or over-cautious (the underrated 2014 Jason Reitman film Men, Women and Children was a victim of this), and it’s important to look closely at what the movie is warning us about. The only way a movie or TV show can communicate effectively about the pitfalls of modern tech is to craft characters that mirror our experience (or our future experience). Movies like Her and Ex Machina, or shows like Black Mirror, do this effortlessly, and give us chills as a result. They prompt us to be more mindful in how we interact and in what we do with the things we build. By contrast, The Circle is like that person who says, “Facebook is scary! We should all quit!” then runs away to creep on someone, alone in their room.

The Circle gets one and a half stars out of four.

What did you think of this new Emma Watson/Tom Hanks tech drama? Does it make you want to go off the grid? Or have other stories done a better job of depicting the perils of our modern world? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!