Based on Dave Eggers’ novel about the eponymous tech company, “The Circle” feels more like a designer’s mock-up than a fully formed product. Beautifully shot by Matthew Libatique with cool injections of The Circle’s pervasive technology onscreen, the film has a sleek look benefitting its subject, but it doesn’t actually work as a movie.
With the help of her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), Mae (Emma Watson) wins a coveted job in customer experience at tech giant The Circle, changing her life for the better. Led by the charismatic CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and COO Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle offers her purpose, as well as all the amenities Bay Area employees dream of, from yoga with dogs to Beck concerts (and you were happy with free coffee and once-a-month bagels). They even offer health insurance to her father (the late, great Bill Paxton), who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Won over by Bailey’s inspirational speeches and all the perks, Mae drinks the corporate Kool-Aid, even though The Circle’s technology may infringe on privacy and individual rights. Her coworkers and friends (including John Boyega and Ellar Coltrane) raise questions about The Circle’s mission, while Mae continues to be persuaded by the power and the company’s potential. Soon, she finds herself taking a pivotal role in their latest product, blurring the lines between her personal and professional lives.
Though it arrives from James Ponsoldt, “The Circle” lacks the emotional resonance we’ve come to expect from the director’s past work such as “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour.” This film feels cold and inhuman, largely due to the lack of attention paid to characters other than Mae. We don’t get a sense of who they are, what motivates them or even how they connect with her. Some disappear for stretches at a time, until it’s convenient for them to reappear. It’s the rare film that could have been longer, only if that extra running time could have been devoted to fleshing out characters. Instead, it feels like lines and whole scenes were edited out, which could have added much-needed clarity.
It also doesn’t really function as a satire, as a result of an uneven tone and approach to its subject. “The Circle” rarely fully commits in its attacks, dulling its teeth when it should be moving in for the kill. It’s at its best when it targets both Silicon Valley culture and the pervasive reach of technology into our lives, speaking the language of tech companies with ease and knowing humor. But its ultimate point about the dangers of social media, oversharing and corporate surveillance doesn’t feel particularly revelatory, especially after three seasons of the superior “Black Mirror.”
Though characters beyond Mae and their relationship to her are barely sketched out, she’s a fascinating person, flawed in a way that cinematic protagonists (especially female ones) rarely are. Films of this size rarely have people like this at their center – who make big mistakes while thinking that they’re doing the right thing – but her actions in the film’s final third feel neither true nor earned. However, “The Circle” does stand out for its refusal to have the requisite romantic subplot for a film with a woman as its lead. What drives Mae isn’t love, and it doesn’t figure into her relationships with men in her life.
“The Circle” wouldn’t play at all if it didn’t have someone as engaging and likable as Watson playing Mae. What she brings to the role – both in her performance here and in the audience’s knowledge of her filmography — makes her a perfect fit for a character who remains watchable even as she’s making bad and/or illogical decisions. Similarly, casting Hanks as the CEO is a bit of genius: we associate the actor with being charming and trustworthy, and it’s clear to see why Bailey is at the head of the world’s biggest company.
With strong UI but terrible UX, “The Circle” is a movie that has all the appearances of working — a solid director, great cast and impressive pedigree — but constantly throws errors. It’s a frustrating viewing experience with little surprise or delight to be found. [C]