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The Circle review: a toothless, bland satire of a Google fantasy dystopia

The Circle review: a toothless, bland satire of a Google fantasy dystopia


‘What if privacy, but not enough?’

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Image: STX Entertainment

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. We’re currently reporting from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

One of the most fundamental problems with Dave Eggers’ future-thriller novel The Circle is that its protagonist, Mae Holland, is a cipher. Eggers’ book has a satirical agenda: his future society, where a Google-esque tech company attempts to eradicate privacy, is an extension of the current social media landscape, where people voluntarily document and publicize even the most mundane aspects of their lives. But its central character isn’t a person so much as a plot function, a mouthpiece who forwards Eggers’ agenda without developing a personality that would explain it.

That problem extends into the film adaptation, a stripped-down, unemphatic version of the story that streamlines the book’s plot and alters the ending, but nonetheless preserves many of its biggest faults. In theory, having real human faces attached to some of The Circle’s more unlikely statements and beliefs should humanize the story, making it more grounded and real, and raising the stakes. In practice, the film version feels even more disconnected from reality than the book. Where the book feels deliberately arch, the film just feels vague and out of touch. The modern technological tug-of-war between privacy and security is a real and significant issue. The version of that conflict in the film version of The Circle is bland, neutered, and cartoony. 

What’s the genre?

Black Mirror-esque dystopian drama. 

What’s it about?

Mae (Harry Potter and Beauty and the Beast star Emma Watson), an impressionable young woman in a dead-end cubicle job, gets hired as a customer service rep at The Circle, an immense Google-like company with seemingly utopian, progressive ideas about how technology can drive human connection. But those ideas rapidly morph into 1984-worthy slogans, with a philosophy to match. “Secrets are lies” is literally painted on the walls at The Circle’s sunny, modern glass-and-steel campus. “Privacy is theft” becomes another Circle rubric, with the idea being that it’s selfish and withholding for people to enjoy things without sharing them with others, either in person, via online sharing, or by taking along a live-streaming drone.

Initially, Mae struggles with The Circle’s culty culture, like the mandatory, heavily monitored social media participation. But when the company’s generous medical benefits make life easier for her parents (Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton) — especially her dad, who has MS — she starts to buy into the cult, then represent it worldwide. She gets some early warnings of impending catastrophe from a soft-spoken Circle employee (The Force Awakens’ John Boyega) who perpetually seems to be hanging around texting. But her avuncular bosses (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt) keep pushing her toward new ways to support The Circle by destroying personal privacy and personal choice.  

Image: STX Entertainment

What’s it really about?

Like so many great science fiction stories, it’s a warning about a possible future, about how if present cultural trends are extended in a certain direction, they could morph into something more ominous. Like so many lousy science fiction stories, though, it’s also about how the world might go wrong if people were cartoonish, one-dimensional imbeciles. 

Is it good?

Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) co-scripted the film adaptation of The Circle with Eggers, and one of their major changes was to limit the story’s scope considerably — to drop back from showing anything significant about how The Circle’s initiatives are changing the world. This was an immense mistake. The film feels like it takes place in a disconnected thought-experiment fantasy space. None of what the company does necessarily matters outside its campus, except to Mae’s parents and her halfheartedly sketched childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, star of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood). When Mae suggests that people should be legally required to use Circle services in ways that would permanently change democracy and citizenship, it’s meant to be a huge step toward dystopic horror. Instead, the idea feels delusional, because the film has made no effort to explore what kind of power the organization actually has in the world, and there’s no reason to believe that Mae’s suggestions could lead anywhere.

And “the film has made no effort” applies to just about everything within The Circle. So many of its ideas are thrown out haphazardly with no follow-up. Mercer isn’t a character so much as a handful of loosely associated scenes. Mae’s best friend and Circle sponsor Annie (Karen Gillan) goes from inner-circle power-player to disintegrating mess in a similarly abrupt scattering of moments. The Circle’s social media obsession is introduced in one dryly funny scene where a pair of employees alternately scold Mae for her low engagement rate, and remind her that all Circle social activity is strictly optional. But that aspect of the world never comes up again. Toward the end, it’s suggested that The Circle’s top leaders are hypocrites given over to capital-E Evil in some vague way, but their actual intentions are never established.

As a result, virtually none of The Circle has any emotional or narrative impact. Watson’s performance is placid and poreless, a collection of minimalist smiles and forehead-beetling frowns that do nothing to emphasize the story’s stakes. The threat here is abstract and notional: to paraphrase Mallory Ortberg’s memorable takedown of Black Mirror, “What if Google, but too much?” Hanks stands out tremendously as a Steve Jobs / Elon Musk figure — his particular brand of beaming warmth is easy to read as convincing to a crowd, yet fundamentally insincere — but his character is as flat and frictionless as all the others.

Image: STX Entertainment

About the only thing in The Circle that feels real is the online response when Mae “goes transparent” by wearing a camera and streaming her life to millions of fans. Ponsoldt uses the increasingly common visual conceit of having people’s internet comments appear on-screen in a cloud of digital pop-ups, as viewers react to Mae’s every movement with judgments, support, leers, and narcissistic, attention-seeking non sequiturs about cheese. (Noticeably missing: people threatening to rape or murder her, or ordering her to kill herself. Apparently The Circle’s world is too transparent, or too mild-mannered, for trolls.) The flood of information, which Mae is expected to take in and respond to, is more relatable than anything else in the movie. But it’s still a vanilla-pudding version of the more intense scenario in the book.

Ultimately, The Circle is a riff on George Orwell’s 1984 where Big Brother is the online world at large — the internet’s endless demand for validation and response, the fear of missing out, the fear of not having a presence. But the threats are abstract, toothless, and frequently silly. The idea of people living solely to maximize their online fandom has been done before, and done better. Eggers’ book pushes past satire into dark farce, where the story’s hyperbole feels more like a gag than a coherent warning about the future. The film version doesn’t even feel pointed enough to be satire.

What should it be rated?

There’s a little traumatic violence and a split-second shot of a sexual act, but there’s no blood and little emotion associated with any of the proceedings. None of the emotions here connect in a way that seems like they might traumatize kids — or engage them. You could call it PG-13 for safety’s sake, except nothing here feels remotely unsafe. 

How can I actually watch it?

The Circle opens in theaters on April 28th.