Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega, Bill Paxton
Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements, including drug use.
1 hr. 50 min.
The question that pops into your head after seeing The Circle is, “What would Stanley Kubrick have done?” We can take a guess. The late auteur’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange are classic screen dispositions of the futuristic and the dystopian. The Circle is a story that takes the present too far, with neither the darkness nor unsettling nature of its cinematic predecessors.
Director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour) and Dave Eggers adapted the screenplay from Eggers’ 2013 best-selling novel earnestly enough. With Russian hackers allegedly endangering our electoral process, and crimes broadcast live on Facebook, it’s feasible that a fictional company, as depicted in The Circle, would hew to the philosophy that “Knowing is good . . . knowing EVERYTHING is better.”
The plot revolves around 20-something Mae Holland (Emma Watson), who commutes to a dead-end job in a run-down car. Through her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), she gets an interview with tech giant The Circle. Watson is always fetching, and her American accent is spot on. She’s a remarkable young actress, given the proper material.
As Mae, she takes on her new job with a mixture of puzzlement and worry. She has entered a culture that appears more cultlike than corporate. This looks especially so when employees gather for a session with CEO Eamon Bailey, played by a bearded Tom Hanks, wearing a wireless headset and prowling the stage — a tableau that’s become de rigueur. Hanks is, as usual, engaging, even as a seemingly benign visionary/Svengali. His plan to dot the globe with cameras and root out trouble appears altruistic. As does Mae’s quick conversion to The Circle’s hegemony, following a life-threatening experience. Bailey and COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) don’t have to do much persuading to get Mae on board with living her life “free of secrets,” and completely on camera, before millions, with viewer comments, like tweets, splashed across the screen in real time.
Mae rises within the company as her life, and those of her parents, played by Glenne Headley and the late Bill Paxton, are played out on devices around the world. Then, a tragedy occurs, and Mae is given pause about The Circle’s motives.
I’ll leave it there so that, should you see The Circle, you may come to your own conclusions. From beginning to end, it is a millennial’s fancy, replete with bells and whistles — all the computer-generated images that put us in the milieu of a social media mega-enterprise, and the beaming young people of diverse backgrounds, all hungry to adhere to the company line, damn the moral and ethical issues at hand.
The Circle should be a warning that Big Brother is here, that with each new convenience or contrivance there is an impediment to our privacy. Yet, regardless of Emma Watson’s considerable charm, Tom Hanks’ gravitas, and Patton Oswalt (who, in one scene, rather than applauding, pounds a table with one hand like a Nazi General), there is a lassitude, an antiseptic quality to this film that pervades. It proceeds at such a languid pace, it cannot really qualify as a thriller. Maybe that’s appropriate for these times. The storytelling is in line with the stealthy way technology itself has encroached on us over the last 25 years, as silently as the fog rolls in at night. George Orwell, Arch Obler, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley used the written word and allegory to shake us from our reverie. Stanley Kubrick used film. What Kubrick would have done was alert us to the reality that we are perched more precariously than we think. The Circle does not.