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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: No lessons learned from "The Circle"

Apr 28, 2017 07:42PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and Patton Oswalt in The Circle - © 2017 STX Entertainment.

The Circle (EuropaCorp/STX)

Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use.

Starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Bill Paxton, Glenne Headly, Brando Marler, Poorna Jagannathan, Nate Corddry, Jimmy Wong, Ellen Wong.

Written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based in the novel by Dave Eggers.

Directed by James Ponsoldt.



I remember a time when they published computer science textbooks. Colleges and universities abandoned the practice when it became apparent that the subject matter was moving much faster than the instructional material. Now, it seems the technology is moving faster than laws, ethics or humanity in general.  This cyberspace vacuum is the backdrop for The Circle, a film about the overreaching power and pitfalls of advanced technology.

Emma Watson plays Mae, a costumer service rep stuck in a dead-end job when her pal Annie (Karen Gillan) arranges a new position for her at The Circle, a social media tech Utopia of sorts, modeled after Google, Facebook or Apple near the Silicon Valley. Mae soon discovers that The Circle is all that she’d hoped for, and more. She is provided with housing, health care, all the tech toys she needs, and a built-in “circle” of new friends on a circular compound complete with environmentally conscious diversions, like free concerts from Beck, avant-garde pastimes and “doga” (yoga with your dog). She also learns at the feet of Circle co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt, who thankfully wears an appropriate lanyard at all times).  Bailey resembles the guru-like persona of real-life charismatic tech pioneers Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, giving TEDtalk discourses in front of squealing acolytes in stuffed auditoriums. Mae is also able to get her parents on the corporate health care plan, which is very helpful to her dad who suffers from multiple sclerosis (Bill Paxton, in his final film role) and a relief to her mother (Glenne Headley) who cares for him. Her new cult-like job also alienates her from her local love interest Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). As Mae learns more about how The Circle’s inner dealings, she is drawn into the idea of gathering more information on the entire population through social media algorithms, that Eamon and Tom can use to build a more efficient society. She overlooks ethical dilemmas and eventually allows her life to be broadcast over the Internet, suggesting that all “secrets are lies,” “privacy is theft” and “sharing is caring.” Her transparency eventually carries dire consequences for the people in her life. She eventually discovers that a third co-founder (John Boyega) has broken away from the idea of complete data control. Mae is eventually faced with a choice between Eamon’s cyber Utopia and the ethos of individuality.

The Circle is hodgepodge of narratives, swinging wildly between some sort of cyber ethics dilemma and corporate conspiracy drama. As I was watching Mae make one bad decision after another, stepping past several improper (and illegal) privacy rights hurdles, I couldn’t help but wonder when one person might raise their hand and suggest that the idea of compulsory data sharing might be, oh, I dunno…WRONG? The Circle plays out more like a fantasy, where such basic logic is lost on a cultish mirage of complete control and infinite transparency. As you witness fascist cyber bullying and boorish social media posturing in the movie, you have to wonder where we’re headed, but The Circle makes no bones about what is right or wrong. The movie’s conclusion is similarly cryptic, leaving the audience with a sense of incomplete malaise; unsure if The Circle makes any useful statement about the digital world and the humans who perpetuate it. Sure, there are real world implications to be found in The Circle, like the preponderance of Google’s algorithms and the NSA’s cyber spying on the citizenry, but the movie draws no salient conclusions. Director James Ponsoldt’s interpretation of Dave Egger’s novel (who also penned the adapted the screenplay) may have provided a good case for libertarian principles, but that doesn’t appear to be their intent. If anything, it seems more likely that Eggers prefers total transparency, damn your selfish individual rights.

Emma Watson and Tom Hanks’ performances are equally perplexing and are not convincing as their characters bypass so many ethical and legal standards. The Circle is a terrible waste of their talents. Adding a little disjointed "cyberbabble" and "technospeak," dialogue doesn't really help make the movie more convincing, either. 

In the end, The Circle ends up as a dystopian square peg in an obviously round hole of humanity; revealing more of what is becoming increasingly lost in a world of impersonal cyberspace, with no end in sight. True, “Big Brother” may be an growing reality, but “he” is us, and The Circle offers no lessons for our new Orwellian experience.


The Circle Trailer