Tribeca 2017: The Circle Review by Zachary Shevich
In a not-so-distant future dominated by social media companies as depicted by The Circle, dystopia has been anesthetized. When Mae (Emma Watson) gets a dream job in customer service at The Circle – a monolithic Facebook/Google-esque tech giant – she’s confronted by challenging ethical dilemmas such as transparency and privacy. If this sounds anti-climactic it’s for a reason. James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) directs this adaptation of the David Eggers’ 2013 novel with the emotional depth of a corporate commercial. The Circle, which premiered at a gala during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, aims for Black Mirror-level thrills but winds up tonally closer to a melodramatic student film.
The Circle envisions a world not too dissimilar from our current one in which nearly 90% of all Americans interact daily with the social platform, voluntarily sharing personal details and waiving away privacy rights. For some this is a convenience. As The Circle’s founder Bailey (Tom Hanks, sporting a Steve Jobs-ish beard and dad jeans) proudly proclaims, “Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.” However not everyone at The Circle is quite so comfortable with this access, including Ty (John Boyega), who broods mysteriously in the background of several scenes without dialog. After a congresswoman submits all her emails to The Circle for public viewing, Ty informs Mae of the company’s plans to store every politician’s information; yet, Mae doesn’t immediately see any of this overreach as nefarious.
A collection of loose thread subplots bogs down the central tension around The Circle’s increasing omnipresence. Mae’s father Vinnie (the late Bill Paxton, solid albeit unmemorable in his final film role) suffers from multiple sclerosis so Mae and her mother Bonnie (Glenne Headly) are occupied by taking care of him. When Mae first arrives at The Circle’s campus she’s shown around by a childhood friend, Annie (Karen Gillan), whose kind demeanor suddenly vanishes in the 2nd act when she’s overworked to the point of exhaustion. Later, when Mae posts a picture of a deer antler chandelier made by her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), he receives death threats over his alleged “deer killing,” (honestly, a more difficult plot point to believe than the majority of the film’s futuristic prognostications).
The Circle takes an interesting twist in its 2nd half when Mae is asked to wear a camera and stream her life much in the way that Facebook Live has allowed anyone to do the same in our world. Amusingly, the online comments appear on-screen during the scenes providing an in-world commentary, trolly comments included. This action is treated with far more wonder in The Circle than seems reasonable for a future-set movie when ostensibly there are thousands of people doing the same thing right now. Much of what’s presented takes place in an alternate reality where the entire world remains fixated on the daily habits of a customer service rep.
For James Ponsoldt, The Circle marks an odd left turn in the career of a filmmaker primarily known for intimate, human dramas. His movies often fixate on a character caught between indulging oneself or working towards something greater, and there is an element of that in the ethical battle for Mae; however, her conflict feels diminished by the film’s own fascination with The Circle technology. Hanks, the villain of this story, is essentially absent from all but one scene in the first half of the movie. Any human emotions are lost in the oppressively sterile production design.
Watching The Circle, it’s as if these were scenes assembled from a larger story. Whether that’s a function of the screenplay being unable to fully capture the density of the novel, or some poor editing choices, the final product feels rushed and anti-climactic. As a result, a stacked cast of solid actors deliver universally stilted performances, forced to delivery lines about sending frowny emojis to an oppressive regime. There’s a fascinating story within this material. The first episode of Black Mirror’s 3rd season, “Nosedive,” (written by Michael Schur and Rashida Jones) could work as an improved, slightly altered sequel set in the same world.
The Circle doesn’t deliver the sense of invasive terror it sets out to tell. This tech thriller lacks the excitement to tap into its interesting concept. The tension is muted behind expository dialog and silicon valley-style tech presentations.