When Mae (Emma Watson) gets a chance to work at The Circle, a fictional tech behemoth, she’s so thrilled at the thought of ditching her soul-deadening customer-service job that she can barely fake the chill required to ace the interview, which evokes Google’s infamously unconventional and challenging questions. In The Circle, Mae’s starry-eyed enthusiasm rhymes with the voyeuristic thrill of getting a glimpse behind the curtain of even a fictional version of one of those companies that collect so much information about us while they simultaneously retain a stubborn sense of mystery about how they operate. Complete with petanque pits and a professional-quality stage where hot bands play at parties that extend well into the night, The Circle’s campus might be the glossy love child of a billionaire’s private island and the world’s best endowed and most exclusive college.
All that carefully curated “fun,” however, is engineered not just to attract bright, energetic young people, but to keep them there as long as possible. The Circle wants its employees to give up all other attachments and interests, erase the distinction between work and time off, and post all their activities on The Circle-curated pages, allowing the company to capture and capitalize on reams of their personal data. Mae takes a while to catch onto that core truth, but James Ponsoldt’s film makes it clear from the start. When charismatic CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) delivers his weekly orations, the camera cuts frequently to the rapt faces of the employees packed into the auditorium, absorbing his Orwellian slogans like sponges and laughing eagerly at every studiedly casual reference to his personal life. It’s a promising setup, but it soon fizzles out as the film, having used all its ammo on those relatively easy targets, leaves bigger issues about how companies like The Circle are affecting our lives largely unexplored.
The Circle, co-adapted by Dave Eggers from his own novel, is full of characters who were all too obviously created just to score points, often in situations that shoulder their way past social satire to enter the purple realm of unconvincing melodrama. Ellar Coltrane, who demonstrated his ability to portray pretty much any emotion imaginable in Boyhood, is trapped here in the amber of crunchy-granola authenticity as Mae’s friend Mercer. His few and brief appearances soon feel tiresomely repetitive, always involving either visiting Mae’s parents—which he does more than she does—or warning Mae about the dangers of trading her social life for social media. His final scene feels both overwrought and over-determined, since his character has been too thinly developed to earn the emotional investment the scene is straining for.
Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly less coherent as the film progresses. The young woman’s initially charming enthusiasm starts to look less like naïveté than willful ignorance as she acquiesces to The Circle’s cult-like rules and social mores with no apparent qualms. In the end, dragging Mercer and her parents into her newly mediated life without asking their permission, exposing them to the unsolicited eyeballs and opinions of millions of strangers, seems more cruel—or, at best, blindly selfish—than clueless.
Mae appears to be as Machiavellian as the big bosses when she joins Bailey and CEO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) on stage and in inner-circle meetings, volunteering to “go transparent” by sharing every bit of her life with the rest of the world and then helping to sell The Circle’s new privacy-destroying, power-grabbing ideas with increasing slickness and ease. She regrets her complicity with the bosses after things go sickeningly wrong during one of her presentations, but she’s still sounding the horn of full disclosure as the path to better living in her climactic speech in the film. Maybe she’s had some grand insight into how obliterating everybody’s privacy and collecting their data in a central repository can be a force for good rather than the totalitarian tool it’s been (accurately) portrayed as throughout the rest of The Circle, but if so she never expresses that insight.
Some of the film’s details of life in a tech-dominated culture are nicely done, but none are revelatory. The mishmash of unbridled adulation, vicious criticism, and banal asides that show up as pop-up messages on screen after Mae goes transparent, mirroring the ones she’s bombarded with by her social media followers, epitomize the odd blend of investment and detachment with which we participate online. They give the film some of its funniest social satire, but it’s common enough to see messages like these in films and TV shows now to make them land more as entertainment than enlightenment.
Similarly, the film presents a powerful concept in the ratings that Circle employees are constantly driven to perfect, a popularity measure based not just on their performance on the job, but on how much they socialize with their co-workers after hours and how transparently they share their lives on social media, which is displayed on all their screens as it changes in real time. But the idea of being a slave to online popularity ratings was developed more deeply and chillingly in the first episode of Black Mirror’s latest season.
The Circle is almost as much of a bait-and-switch for its audience as The Circle is for Mae. Reeling us in with the promise of telling us something new about the fast-moving conspiracy to monetize our private lives, it turns out to be just a hokily melodramatic rise-fall-redemption story with a mostly unearned patina of greater significance.