The Circle is the second time Tom Hanks has tried a Dave Eggers adaptation, following last year’s A Hologram for the King. Like that movie, The Circle doesn’t work, although Hanks’s performance is better here—albeit, much smaller. In The Circle he plays a secondary character and Emma Watson is the lead, and the ensemble is rounded out by John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Karen Gillan, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton—in his last film role—and Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane. This is a very talented cast which is almost entirely wasted, and the direction by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) is completely non-descript.
Watson stars as Mae, who is elated to get a job at The Circle, a giant tech company that’s like a mash-up of Apple, Google, Facebook, and the NSA. In this alternate reality, The Circle has a social media platform called “TruYou” that combines all social platforms into one, and the company is always trying to increase TruYou’s reach and flexibility—what they call “completion” without giggling like a perv—right up to using it to register to vote, and even pay your taxes.
The movie’s attitude toward technology—and its boundary and privacy destroying abilities—is that it is inherently horrifying and perhaps evil and corrupt. When Mae brings up TruYou leading to compulsory voting, a key reaction shot tells us we should be horrified by the mere concept. But after a national election in the US in which 48% of the eligible population didn’t vote, I’m not sure that’s a hill you want to die on.
The whole movie is basically like that one scene. Someone at The Circle says something, anything, and Mae looks on, bewildered and maybe a little scared, as communicated by Watson’s scrunched nose—she spends most of the movie looking like she’s holding in a fart. (Emma Watson is not convincing as normal people: Discuss.) The Circle is obsessed with ranking and rating everything, so Mae’s customer feedback is instantaneous and projected right in her face at her desk, and she is “encouraged” to join company extracurriculars like free Beck concerts and “doga”: dog yoga, which is just yoga done with dogs present, and not dogs doing yoga. (I was disappointed, too.)
The Circle wants to be about the dangers of technology, except it’s 1) too late, and 2) smug. This movie—and the book it’s based on—is twenty years too late. We’re already plugged in and it is inevitable that the next evolution of social media is a super-platform that merges the user experience of Facebook and Twitter. And paying your taxes through some kind of centralized account is also probably inevitable. Is it evil? Undoubtedly. Almost everything invented by humans ultimately becomes a weapon or tool of evil-doing. The Circle would do better to make its case by showing us the collapse of a society that connected, not by whinging, that emojis are for toddlers.
Which brings us to the smug. Coltrane pops up as Mercer, Mae’s childhood sweetheart who now makes chandeliers out of deer antlers. He is Rugged and Unplugged and Ultimately Destroyed By Technology. Mercer is barely on screen and we certainly don’t get to know him, but he’s such a stereotypical portrayal of a person who doesn’t like social media—if this movie was made in the 1990s, he would proudly exclaim that he doesn’t even own a TV. The movie’s argument against social media amounts to, “Dave Eggers doesn’t like it”, and never touches on real concerns like trolls, cyber-bullying, and doxxing.
Instead we get Mae wearing a tiny camera 24/7 as part of the company’s transparency initiative—she’s a Youtube star. The Circle founder Eamon Bailey (Hanks) wants to use their new tiny cameras to make the whole world accountable by removing privacy in an obvious Big Brother rip-off, and here the movie loses the plot. Mae comes to realize that such aggressive surveillance might not be such a great idea, except in the end, her solution to Eamon’s overreach is to pull a Natasha Romanov and dump all his files on the internet. And then, in the end, when several drones descend on her while kayaking, she smiles at them. So she’s okay with surveillance now? She fixed the surveillance problem with…more surveillance?
I’m still not sure what the lesson of The Circle is supposed to be, beyond “social media is dumb, and so are camera phones”. There are actual issues of privacy and security relating to social media and our ever-more-connected and digital world, but The Circle engages in none of them. It isn’t good, nor is it entertainingly bad. It’s basically two hours of an old man yelling at clouds.