‘The Circle’ review

Although it features a strong cast led by Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, The Circle still manages to be a frustratingly shallow spin on the balance between freedom and privacy.

Films and television series that explore the tug-of-war between personal privacy and connectivity typically do so with a hefty dose of nuance and concessions to the gray area between these opposing elements. TV shows like Black Mirror and Mr. Robot show us the danger of taking an all-or-nothing approach to technology, but without feeling overly preachy or too much like a bitter old man shaking his fist at modern conveniences.
Director James Ponsoldt’s The Circle aspires to be an effective film in that respect, so it’s unfortunate that its heavy-handed messaging and underwhelming performances let it fall so flat.

An adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name, The Circle casts Emma Watson as a fresh-faced new employee at a powerful tech company that has raised social networking to a level of ubiquity – and necessity – far beyond that of our own Facebook or Google. The company known as The Circle is led by its charismatic co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and his business-minded partner, Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). Emma Watson’s Mae Holland quickly rises through the corporate ranks after she has an experience with the company’s tech that goes viral and she finds herself thrust into the spotlight.

The Circle makes its intentions clear in frustratingly obvious ways.

As one might expect, Mae finds that her willingness to go above and beyond to embrace the company’s pursuit of an always-on, always-connected society is fraught with risks – both for her and her loved ones, and for the greater world outside her social network.

From the very start, The Circle makes its intentions clear in frustratingly obvious ways that leave little room for nuance.

At no point is there any confusion about who the heroes and villains are in this story, with The Circle corporation aggressively positioned as an evil invader of privacy that hides its nefarious intentions behind promises of positive social change. Hanks and Oswalt rarely feel invested in their characters, and rather than give them a sense of depth that would make the audience feel conflicted about the pair’s willingness to test the boundaries of freedom and social accountability, the film casts them as relatively simple, black-hat bad guys – and not especially convincing ones at that.

These missed opportunities end up being a recurring problem with the film, which also doesn’t do Watson any favors as its leading lady.

Over the course of the movie, Watson’s character goes from overworked, underpaid call-center peon to a figure who could very well determine the future of social connectivity in human civilization, but you wouldn’t know it by the evolution her character undergoes – or doesn’t undergo, in this case – on the screen.

The absence of any convincing, dramatic growth in her character is compounded by how often the movie relies on having Mae tell her family or friends about the emotions she’s feeling in video calls, making her evolution feel like it could just as easily be another aspect of the online persona she’s developed for herself. The end result is a character that never feels truly, authentically involved in the events happening around her, making the rest of the film feel as frustratingly shallow as its protagonist.

It’s difficult not to feel disappointed in The Circle.

On the positive side, Guardians of the Galaxy actress Karen Gillan provides one of the better performances in the film. Her character – Mae’s friend, who gets her the job at The Circle – experiences the most pronounced change in the film, and her shift from true believer to burned-out skeptic to a sort of middle-ground, self-aware, rational participant in The Circle’s global social network is the most distinct evolution of any character in the movie.

Gillan’s performance isn’t enough to make up for the underwhelming roles played by Watson, Hanks, and Oswalt, though, and especially not the criminal underuse of John Boyega. The Star Wars: The Force Awakens actor plays a role that wavers between being Mae’s love interest, mentor, and enigmatic co-conspirator, but never seems to settle on what it wants to be. Boyega ends up spending most of his screen time staring at his phone, which seems like exceptionally poor use of a talented actor.

Given how many movies and television series have given tech privacy issues more textured, carefully considered treatment, it’s difficult not to feel disappointed in The Circle and what it fails to achieve with its talented cast. At nearly every opportunity, it takes the easy route, and offers up an entirely predictable, all-too-safe story that holds few surprises, and even fewer reasons to give its themes any thought.