THE CIRCLE (2017) – Cautionary Tale Almost Thought-Provoking

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If there’s one fundamental weakness about THE CIRCLE (2017), a story about a young woman’s involvement in a cutting edge social media company that threatens to change life as we know it, it’s that in this day and age where we see technological advances unfold on a seemingly daily basis, the ideas it presents as potentially dangerous and disturbing are already happening.  As such, none of what occurs in THE CIRCLE is all that mind-blowing or insightful.

THE CIRCLE is based on the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers and tells the story of Mae (Emma Watson) whose life is going nowhere as she is stuck in a thankless temp job, until she catches a break when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) who works for the hottest company on the planet, the Circle, gets her an interview there.  The interview goes well and Mae is hired (of course).

The Circle is a social media company run by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) that is all about connecting people across the world, gathering information and data, and doing away with privacy and secrets, all in the name of making the world a better place.  For example, their technology is able to help police locate missing children within minutes.  Bailey promises that politicians and dictators will no longer be able to operate in the shadows.  All decisions will be public and in real-time.

They’re able to do this as they unleash a new technology, miniature cameras that are practically invisible and can be placed everywhere around the world.  Not only do these cameras provide live video feeds but also satellite data of the area.  The Circle utilizes other innovative technologies as well.

At first, Mae is somewhat skeptical as she finds it all a bit much, and she’s also initially put off by the company’s social policy which encourages its workers to remain on “campus” over the weekends and engage in social activities with fellow employees.

But when Annie arranges for Mae’s parents to be on the company’s health care policy, which is a huge deal because Mae’s dad Vinnie (Bill Paxton, in his final film role) suffers from multiple sclerosis and his present insurance covers very little of his treatment, Mae begins to see the company differently.  She rises in the ranks and soon catches the eye of her boss, Mr. Bailey.

Eventually, Mae agrees to take part in a huge cutting edge experiment, where she will be connected online 24/7, inviting the world to join her every minute of every day.

Pardon me for not finding this so “cutting edge.”  Why not?  Because we do it already!  Go anywhere in public on any given day and you’ll see nearly everyone walking around with some sort of smart phone or mobile device.  We’re there already.

And that’s the fundamental problem I had with THE CIRCLE.  The dangers of what its “science fiction” tale are trying to predict are already happening.  The world is already connected.  Privacy is pretty much gone.  Cameras are already everywhere.  Heck, we have a U.S. President who’s addicted to a Twitter account.  In fact, I’d argue that what’s currently happening in real life in terms of our society’s dependency on technology is far scarier than what’s depicted in THE CIRCLE.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t get some things right.  It does.  The point about the Circle wanting its employees to socialize together over the weekends jabs at what many companies do today, viewing the social aspect of its employees nearly as important as the work aspect.  To” old timers” like myself such notions are cringe-worthy. Work is work, not a playground.  In fact, my first thought when Mae is introduced to her co-workers on her first day was that there was no way I’d ever be able to work for a company like the Circle.  It makes STAR TREK’S Starfleet Academy look like boot camp.

The screenplay by director James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers covers a lot of ground but ultimately is too superficial to make much of an impact. In spite of its innovations or maybe because of them, The Circle never felt like a real company to me in this movie. And Mae, a fairly likable character, was never fleshed out enough to be someone I really cared about.

As such, Emma Watson does an okay job as Mae.  She was criticized for her performance as Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) for being too plain and flat, but I thought she caught Belle’s persona rather well.  After all, Belle is bookish and intellectual, and she’s not supposed to be portrayed as a princess type.

I found Watson even less engaging here as Mae, but again, she seems to have been saved by the source material.  After all, one of the points THE CIRCLE is making is that we are all so connected to our technologies that it’s taking away from our real life relationships, and so it’s possible that Mae is supposed to be superficial and shallow.  Either way, she is, and for right or wrong, Watson nails this disengaged personality.  She does come to life for one scene, when her friend Annie gives her the news that her dad will be covered on the company health care policy.  Watson shows some genuine emotion here.  I wish she had done this more often.

As Mae’s friend Annie, Karen Gillan does a nice job.  At first, Gillan makes Annie the go-getting workaholic, but things gradually change as Mae rises in the company, something that Annie sees as a threat.  Throughout the film, Gillan displays more emotion than Watson ever does.  We’ll be seeing Gillan again next week as she reprises her role as Nebula in the Marvel sequel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017).  She also was in THE BIG SHORT (2015).

Perhaps the strongest performance in the film, and I suppose this should come as no surprise, belongs to Tom Hanks as Circle founder Eamon Bailey.  There’s something genuinely creepy about Bailey, and I think it’s because Hanks plays it straight.  In other words, he doesn’t make Bailey sinister or imbue him with hints of ulterior motives.  He plays him like a syrupy sweet sincere man, like that older uncle who seems for all intents and purposes to be a nice guy but perhaps lingers with that hug a bit too long or looks you in the eye as if he’s seeing through you, and there is just something off-putting about him, although you can’t put your finger on it.  Hanks plays Bailey like this. It’s a subtle, masterful performance.

It was also a bit sad to see Bill Paxton in his final film performance.  He’s excellent, as always, as Mae’s very sick father.  His passing earlier this year made his performance here as the seriously ill Vinnie even more poignant.

Glenne Headly plays Mae’s mom Bonnie, and she’s very good as well.  Headly has made a ton of movies, but I still always remember her for her hilarious role as Janet Colgate in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) which also starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin.

I thought Ellar Coltrane was ineffective as Mae’s friend Mercer.  He’s supposed to represent the last gasp of humanity, as he shuns social media and constantly laments to Mae that her new way of life is awful and that there is something dreadfully wrong with it.  Unfortunately, nearly everything Mercer says is cliché, and he tends to whine a lot, and so whenever he was on screen I wanted to kick him in the pants.

Likewise John Boyega (Finn in the new STAR WARS movies) was disappointing as Ty, a shadowy figure at the company who befriends Mae and who is always telling her of the dangers of what the company is up to.  The character is just begging for a larger role during the film’s third act, but this never really happens.  Boyega isn’t on-screen enough to have much of an impact in this one.

Director James Ponsoldt does an okay job at the helm, but things could have been better. First off, there’s no sense of pacing.  Suspense never builds, and the film never becomes the type of thriller it could have been.  It’s all rather stoic and plain, and there’s very little emotion to be had.

I had very low expectations for this movie, because I had heard less than flattering things about it, but it wasn’t awful.

Its story about the dangers of social media and invasive technologies is interesting but falls just short of being thought-provoking because these dangers have already come to pass, and so the story seems old hat and as a result more tepid than titillating.  It should have taken things farther.  For instance, what could people with access to this type of technology really do?  I can come up with a few better ideas than just watching one young woman go through her day.  The forces behind the Circle should have been more ambitious, and the stakes much higher.

On the other hand, I wasn’t completely bored.  And I enjoyed the two solid albeit supporting performances by Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton.

In the lead Emma Watson lacks emotion and depth, and she doesn’t really make Mae a person I cared for all that much, but considering the story THE CIRCLE is trying to tell, that may have been the point.

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