There is a scene in The Circle, when young tech worker and budding reality star Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is asked what her biggest fear is. She pauses to think for a couple of seconds before coming up with the words “unfulfilled potential.” She may as well have been talking about the film itself.
At the very least, The Circle offers an interesting premise. Based on the bestselling satirical techno-thriller by Dave Eggers, the film puts internet freedom and privacy under a microscope. In it, an ambitious young woman is delighted to land a job at an internet company named The Circle. In real world terms, this business is a bit like an extreme version of Google or Facebook.
It is run by its co-founders, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), and features a modern high-tech campus where every employee is made to feel significant and creativity is fostered, again like what you may have seen of Google. But there is a difference. The employees are expected to lead a very public life online, and join The Circle operating system as deeply as possible. The Circle system basically links the intimate details of its users, from bank information to social media accounts, to create one online identity. The philosophy is to have every person connected and monitored, because apparently no honest person should have anything to hide.
As compelling as the story appears, The Circle fails in its execution
Initially, Mae is receptive when she is nudged towards embracing company culture. When she is told that it will be noted if she forgoes the “optional” office social events and that her personal life isn’t shared by her on her feed as much as the company would like, she takes it in stride and puts herself out there. But gradually, she begins to notice that things aren’t all as they seem. For one, the employees are a bit drone-like in their worship of Eamon, in a relationship that reminded me of Apple fanboys and Steve Jobs. Like a few actual megalomaniac CEOs of such companies, Eamon offers a lot of marketing nonsense for his new products. For instance, a tiny satellite connected camera that can secretly observe and upload video of anyone is sold as a safety device, when in reality it is a privacy nightmare. Eventually, Mae agrees to be filmed 24/7, and this leads to trouble.
As compelling as the story appears, especially coupled with its big name Hollywood cast, the film fails miserably in its execution. To start with, director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour) who has made some excellent character-driven independent films, seems to be out of his depth in a Hollywood tech-thriller, where there needs to be a sense of danger or urgency. The Circle also offers some of the choppiest, most amateurish editing I’ve seen in a Hollywood film in recent memory.
The mediocrity carries to the performances as well. Emma Watson, who is a charismatic actor in the right role, isn’t very engaging. Playing her ex-boyfriend, Ellar Coltrane is off-putting and often mumbles his dialogue, not offering any of his natural charm from Boyhood. Tom Hanks, an excellent actor, seems to play his role like a cliché. And John Boyega, who actually is the best performer in the film, has a very strange and rather nonsensical role that feels as it was written like an afterthought.
Emma Watson, who is a charismatic actor in the right role isn’t very engaging. Ellar Coltrane is off-putting and often mumbles his dialogue, not offering any of his natural charm from Boyhood. Tom Hanks seems to play his role like a cliché. And John Boyega, who actually is the best performer in the film, has a very strange and rather nonsensical role.
But the worst of it is the storytelling itself, which is random, messy, obvious and rather boring. They should have pulled the plug on this one from the start.
Rated PG-13 for sex, strong language and thematic elements including drug use
Published in Dawn, ICON, May 7th, 2017