The Circle

Around and around we go.

By Louis Balzani
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  • You’re exceedingly tolerant of scattered storylines and blunt opining.

Warning moviegoers about the dangers of technology is a cinematic trope threatening to become cliché. For every film out there that subtly and creatively forwards this viewpoint, there are many that project the idea far less delicately. Falling firmly into the latter category, The Circle takes its central messages and bashes viewers over the head with them relentlessly, betraying its otherwise-intriguing premise in the process.

The plot is by-the-numbers fare at best. Down-on-her-luck go-getter Mae Holland slogs through a dead-end customer service job until she catches a break by landing a job at The Circle, an all-powerful amalgamation of Apple, Google, Facebook, and many other real-world tech giants. She makes an impression on the company’s founders, and she soon finds herself representing and cheerleading for the company in ways she never imagined. Of course, all is not as it seems at The Circle, and as you might expect, Mae discovers some troubling information about the super-company just in time to do something about it.

So many of The Circle‘s problems stem from its exaggeration of real-world happenings to absurd extremes. The Circle itself more or less operates as Google on steroids, rolling out major products and services far faster than is practical. One such product is a tiny, spherical camera, which the company places in public areas the world over with nary a peep of protest from citizens or governments alike. As the movie progresses, Mae dons a wearable version of this camera in a case of vlogging gone awry. I’ll admit that working in the tech industry has made me very nitpicky about this sort of thing, but it’s glaringly obvious that The Circle could never get away with most of its activities in the real world, and this undermines much of the film’s believability and dramatic heft.

Even without these sloppy exaggerations, the film’s relentless and thoroughly intolerable lecturing threatens to sink the whole enterprise. The core of its overall premise suggests that data will save the world; the more we know about each other, the better. To that end, privacy is not just outdated but selfish, backward, and even dangerous. I’m sure The Circle would love to present a balanced look at this issue, but its characters spend so much time standing on stages and waxing poetic about analytics that the film’s meager counterarguments might as well not exist. Films often use public talks as opportunities to get up on a soapbox and bluntly get their point across, but few do so as repeatedly and ham-fistedly as The Circle.It’s all pretty unfortunate because the film does touch on some genuine concerns about technology and the workplaces that facilitate its creation. Ambition and corporate visibility often comes at the expense of our personal relationships. Mountains of data and deep analytics do help to advance society and save lives, but it all certainly comes at a cost. As the years pass, technology permeates our society to ever-greater degrees, and the downsides of this certainly merit discussion. There’s a difference between discussion and abject lecturing, however, and The Circle frequently ends up on the wrong side of that distinction.

That’s to say nothing of the fact that no one in the cast seems to be having a good time. Saddled with stilted dialogue and improbable shifts in motivation, Emma Watson is unable to inject any definition into the film’s main character. This leaves Mae as little more than a plot vessel, left to drift wherever the winds or the waves of the jerky story send her. She’s concerned and suspicious until she doesn’t need to be, wise and self-aware until the plot demands that she make a stupid decision. Mae more or less serves as the viewer’s conduit into the world of The Circle – showing, telling, and behaving such that the film can keep working to get its point across.

The rest of the cast fares similarly. John Boyega is completely wasted as the jaded co-founder of The Circle, left to pout and sulk in the dark. Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt bring the requisite charisma to their roles as The Circle’s more visible co-founders, but they never show the malevolence necessary for the audience to turn against them in the end. The late Bill Paxton brings some measure of gravitas as Mae’s sickly father, and he somehow manages to wring some drama out of his thin role. The lone bright spot is perhaps the spritely Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend Annie, whose energy and excitability quickly fade as the demands of her job overwhelm her.

It’s always frustrating to see films with potential squander a good idea and a talented cast, but that’s precisely what The Circle does. By blowing its central premise out of proportion and taking the blunt-force approach to getting its points across, it fails to intrigue or entertain in many key ways. As the summer movie season heats up, you’ll have far more engaging films to spend money on; don’t waste your time with this one.