There’s rich material to be mined from the premise of The Circle, a new thriller set in the offices of a tech giant that’s like Google, Facebook, and Apple all rolled into one.
Unfortunately, the film has neither the patience nor the insight to dig very deeply at all. Instead, it blows the whole concept to rubble and pats itself on the back for having the insight to drop such truth bombs.
Directed by James Ponsoldt and based on a novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a bright young woman who’s hired to work at The Circle. The company has just come out with a revolutionary new technology: a camera called SeeChange that’s so tiny, versatile, and cheap that it promises to bring about an era of (even more) constant surveillance.
To hear co-founder Eamonn Bailey (Tom Hanks) tell it, that’s a good thing. Not only does SeeChange allow them to collect and distribute more data, ubiquitous cameras means less crime, less danger, less shady business. It’s harder for bad guys to run away, for precious relationships to fizzle out, for politicians to cheat their constituents. “Knowing is good,” he preaches. “Knowing everything is better.”
It shouldn’t take a genius to spot the troubling implications of his arguments, or how they connect to real-world issues of privacy, transparency, and security. The Circle wonders what we give up when we log on, what privacy and freedom are really worth, whether it’s really possible to be ourselves online, what happens when giant corporations get into bed with governments. These are all debates worth having, and they’re debates we’ve been having ever since the internet was invented.
So it’s bizarre that The Circle seems so very proud of itself for suggesting that the internet might have some downsides. I won’t presume to know how familiar the filmmakers are with social media, but I can say that The Circle feels like an anti-social media tirade written by someone who tried sending a tweet once and decided he hated it.
There’s no understanding of what makes social media so seductive in the first place, or the very specific terrors that have come out of it. (It seems odd that a movie about the perils of social media wouldn’t spend more time on trolls or cyberbullying, for instance.) The film has no interest in how our online presences have changed the way we see ourselves and relate to each other. Instead, there’s just vague yelling about “the cloud” and “Soylent” and “being social.”
The Circle is so busy trying to ring the alarm against the current state of technology, in fact, that it barely even bothers trying to be a movie. The story lurches from plot point to plot point before spinning entirely out of control in the final act. Most of the characters barely even rise to the level of “stock archetypes” – they’re just empty vessels made to parrot diatribes, theses, and mission statements.
No surprise, then, that the actors come off as stilted and unnatural. John Boyega and Patton Oswalt are wasted in tiny roles, while Emma Watson, in the lead, struggles to make any impression at all. Only Tom Hanks manages to do anything interesting, giving his avuncular image just enough of an edge to make him unsettling. I only wish we’d seen enough of Bailey to get a better sense of who he was.
But that’d require a movie that actually put some thought into why its characters do what they do. And that, ultimately, is the problem with The Circle. It fails to see that every story about technology is really a story about people – the people who made it, the people who use it, the people who need it or benefit from it or are hurt by it.
It understands only that it really, really hates social media. Which isn’t much of a statement at all at a time when any active Twitter user will gladly tell you how much they hate Twitter. Now, if The Circle had thought to ask why we use Twitter anyway? Or whether Facebook makes it impossible to ever really let go of a relationship? Or just how far we’ll go for Instagram likes? That would’ve been a story.