A cautionary tale about how privacy is being sacrificed not just to a desire for security but to a longing for connectedness is welcome at a time when so many people seem to be totally addicted to their smart phones and social media sites, but despite a starry cast “The Circle” fails to generate enough tension to approach the impact of the paranoid thrillers of the seventies it’s trying to emulate. It’s a flaccid affair that’s more likely to induce viewers to click on their devices for entertainment’s sake instead of setting them aside. (Indeed, don’t be surprised to see the glare of phone screens in the theatre while you’re watching the movie.)
Part of the problem with the script, adapted by Dave Eggers (along with director James Ponsoldt) from his 2014 novel, is that the heroine we’re meant to identify with, Mae Holland (Emma Watson), is such a naïve, simpering sort. Trapped in a deadly dull customer service job, she’s overjoyed when her chum Annie (Karen Gillan), an executive at The Circle—a sort of combination Apple, Google and Facebook, only more powerful than any of them—gets her an interview at the outfit. (How the women ever met, let alone became close, goes unexplained.) Mae gets the job, which also involves customer service, but, heck, it’s at The Circle, a place with a huge campus on which community is everything and all employees are encouraged to participate in activities that will bond them together, rather than being “lonely.” Mae’s new job bothers her old friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), an anti-techie, but her parents (Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, in one of his final roles as a man afflicted with MS) are in favor of it, especially after the company provides them with much-needed health benefits.
Mae quickly attracts the attention of chief Circle honchos Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), a Steve Jobs-like corporate guru, and COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), who unlike his colleague wears a suit and can’t even attempt an avuncular style. They choose her to become a guinea pig involving the company’s newest product, a marble-sized camera that can be installed virtually anywhere, promising global surveillance that will allow all wrongdoing to be observed. But it also permits Mae, by donning one of the things herself, to broadcast her entire life to the world, second by second, becoming a sort of “Truman Show” star, but one in the know. (It’s called Going Transparent.) Why Mae? Perhaps because as a newcomer to the company, she retains some naturalness, not yet being a part of the cultish mentality that characterizes most of her colleagues. More importantly, she positively wants to do it—like so many folks nowadays, she’s anxious to put her life out there for all to see; imagine the number of followers she’ll attract.
Naturally things do not go well. Mae becomes a celebrity, bombarded by text messages from the great beyond (which float across the screen like little word bubbles), but her friends and relatives must bear some unwanted scrutiny along with her, and Annie becomes jealous of her quick as cent in the company. There’s also a fellow named Ty (John Boyega), who’s perpetually watching campus events from the shadows. It turns out he’s the creator of The Circle’s great come-on, TruYou, which allows all of a user’s on-line activity to be easily bundled and, in conjunction with the new camera, can—as Mae is quick to point out—effect a revolution of transparency (and “democratization”) in the world. Ty, as it turns out, is not happy to see his creation used in ways that will destroy privacy—though, of course, they would add immeasurably to The Circle’s power and profits.
You know the drill in corporate conspiracy thrillers like this. Eventually the hero (or heroine, in this case) will come to his senses and try to stop the scheme from occurring. Mae realizes the damage the company’s plans can cause—though only after tragedy has struck—and with Ty’s help turns the tables on Bailey and Stenton. It’s unfortunate that in order to get there, the plotting becomes increasingly sketchy and far-fetched, and the narrative problems are accentuated by Ponsoldt’s prosaic direction, generally plodding editing by Lisa Lassek and Franklin Peterson, and indifferent cinematography by Matthew Libatique. (To be fair, there is one chase sequence that generates some excitement, though one can easily imagine it more effectively done. An episode involving Mae’s rescue from a kayak she’s unwisely deciding to go on a nighttime jaunt in, on the other hand, is almost a complete wash.)
The picture’s ultimate fate rests almost completely on Watson, and unhappily she does not prove equal to the task. Even at the close, she shows little of the strength and spirit she did as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” and comes off as a bit of a twit. Boyega is wasted doing little more than presenting dull exposition, Oswalt seems uncomfortably out of his element, Gillan is stuck with a character whose temperamental shifts are barely explained, and Coltrane is hobbled by having to play somebody who’s little more than a sketch mouthing platitudes. Paxton and Headly, however, have a few nice moments. As for Hanks, he’s just coasting on false joviality.
“All the President’s Men” told a story we all knew the end of, but Alan Pakula brought it to life with nail-biting tension. “The Circle” takes up a subject the invites sharp satire and suspenseful paranoia, but turns it into something bland and forgettable. Ponsoldt, obviously, is no Pakula.