Techno-thriller “The Circle” gets the techno part down well. It’s the thriller part it lacks. That said, I’m a big fan of the sub-genre and enjoyed this film more than its iffy reviews and disappointing opening weekend box office might suggest.
RECOMMENDED: WITH CAVEAT
Like almost everything coming out of Hollywood these days, “The Circle” is an adaptation of a 2013 novel, in this case, by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with director, James Ponsoldt.
It’s a story of a 20-something, Mae [Emma Watson], who lives in California with mom [Glenne Headly] and dad [the late Bill Paxton], works at a call center navigating customer complaints, and is uninterested in pursuing a relationship with an adoring childhood friend named Mercer [Ellar Coltrane]. She presents as a bit depressed, given her unrewarding work and her father’s worsening multiple sclerosis. To escape it all, she kayaks.
Happily, she quickly receives a call from a friend, Annie [Karen Gillan], who gives her an inside tip about a “customer experience” position at the social media giant called the Circle, a thinly-veiled fictitious Facebook, founded by a messianic and cult-like figure named Eamon [Tom Hanks], which perhaps sounds a little too much like Elon [Musk].
Naturally, Mae gets the job. She works on the Circle’s sprawling campus with her many coworkers and new BFFs, which is designed more akin to an adult playground than workplace, but serves to make team members feel as though they must work 24/7. She meets with her team members who use a sort of corporate Newspeak when explaining the lifestyle, rather than the job, she accepted. Mae is also schooled in the manner the Circle wants her to merge her personal social media presence with her corporate persona.
On Fridays, the campus assembles in a hall to listen to the dreams of the visionary founder and his obsequious COO, Tom Stenton [Patton Oswalt]. At her first assembly, Mae catches a new Circle micro-camera tossed into the audience by Eamon. It’s marble-sized and shaped and is easily camouflaged. In fact, Eamon shows his disciples just how widely it has been secretly deployed. His genius is cheered among his disciples in the hall.
Mae receives corporate housing, replete with automatic window shades to control her sleep-wake cycles, along with extensive medical coverage. So good it is, the medical department has her swallow some mysterious fluid which will work in conjunction with sophisticated equipment to record her every breath, heartbeat, and loose stool.
Meanwhile, she continues to boost her scores in customer experience using the company’s algorithm and her online social media presence. Mae meets a mysterious coworker at a campus party one night. He’s cynical about the invasion of privacy at the Circle and shows her a hidden place where some of the data collected by the Circle is apparently stored.
Her friend, Mercer, too, is skeptical, He avoids her after the Circle discovers he likes to make chandeliers out of deer antlers from one of her social media posts. As a result of his political incorrectness, he’s mercilessly trolled and publicly shamed by Circle flash-mobs.
While visiting her parents, Mae sees her father’s worsening condition and her mother’s dedication. Mae’s absence on campus doesn’t go unnoticed, ultimately bringing the family’s situation to Eamon’s attention. Eamon responds by suggesting the company cover her father’s medical care, to which her parents gratefully agree. The idea is, though, that Mae and her parents use the platform to “share” their experiences “transparently” with the world. Obtaining informed consent by any of the parties is noticeably overlooked.
Needing an escape one evening, Mae breaks into a kayak rental company and purloins one. She goes out, but gets caught in a storm and nearly drowns. She is saved, however, thanks to the Circle, grateful for her salvation.
Mae is brought onstage at the Circle that Friday to recount her ordeal. The storm was both beautiful and scary, she says. Masterfully, Eamon gets her to admit that if people wore the micro-cameras, they would behave in smarter ways. Eamon also tells the assembly he has a son with a chronic illness which prevents his son from experiencing the world’s wonders directly, and must rely on vicarious enjoyment on the Web.
He suggests to Mae, and she concedes it is “selfish” to not “share” all of life’s experiences with all the world. Mae then announces to Eamon, the campus, and the world that she’s going “fully transparent.” She attaches a micro-camera to her sweater. Mae will be watchable and watched 24/7, except, maybe, Eamon suggests, in the bathroom.
Likewise, her parents have a device affixed in their home which is perpetually on. Remarkably, the family tolerates this for some time, until, to everyone’s horror and embarrassment, Mae video-chats her parents when they’re having sex, and is widely cast across the entire platform. Understandably, her parents cool communications with their daughter until the devise is removed.
Eventually, Mae takes part in a Friday presentation showing how the Circle can find anyone at any time, and demonstrates how by getting Circle users to hone in on a particular criminal seeking to evade discovery. After being applauded for this act, she agrees to show how anyone, anyone can find anyone, anywhere, and tracks down Mercer to illustrate. Unfortunately, when the Circle rabble finds him, they surprise and torment him to the point he speeds off in his truck. They chase him while he dangerously tries to escape. He drives off a cliff into the water and dies.
After being given a leave for bereavement, Mae returns to work, where her status with Eamon rises meteorically. After a promotion at an executive meeting, Mae takes Eamon’s idea of using the Circle to register voters a step further by suggesting all people be required to obtain a Circle account for all government services, including voting, which, BTW, should be mandatory.
By now, even Annie, once a true believer, is weary of the perpetual tracking and wholesale takeover of life by the Circle.
Mae ultimately makes amends with her family, but beforehand, uses a Friday assembly to surprise Eamon and the COO with her latest idea of full transparency regarding the company, too. She places devices on their lapels, and projects confidential financial documents and correspondence of theirs overhead.
This ending was wanting and wholly unsatisfying for a thriller, although the book’s ending is purportedly vastly better.
To succeed as a thriller, it required Tom Hanks’ role be more than a hyper-wealthy Silcion Valley icon who believes his own press releases. His performance was charismatic, contrasted with the drab character and uninspiring performance by Watson. The villain here was the platform, which is hard to demonize. A Circle user does so voluntarily, after all, and, as the movie murkily showed, some good can occasionally come out of it.
I have not read the novel, but understand it added two components to the Circle, called, in perfect tech camelcase, ‘PartiRank,’ a workplace popularity metric, and ‘PastPerfect,’ a tool to uncover family secrets. The more ubiquitous the Circle can be made, the better for theme. Better still would be secrecy of, and ill-motives behind the data collection, much like the real-world “Emotional Contagion” study and, currently, the “Insecure Teen” targeting by Facebook, which added support to the argument there’s lack of voluntariness in social media. More high secrecy and illicit motive could advance plot.
Opportunities were missed in this movie. There was little suspense and no twists, required elements of thrillers. It rang more true to a techno-dystopia-type subgenre, and in that vein, was quite good.
I don’t rate with stars. Instead, I use the simple method of saying whether or not a flick was worth a Hamilton, or the price of a theater ticket.
This was worth a Hamilton to the extent you might like the actual dystopia sub-genre and can be forgiving of the lack of thriller elements.