The Circle

2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Glenn Headley, Bill Paxton, Patton Oswalt | directed by James Ponsoldt | 1hr 50mins |

Studio Pitch: A middle ground between silicon valley as it is today and Black Mirror

{Warning: Thematic Ending Spoilers}

Once again I have to confess to having not read the source material for The Circle, David Eggers’ apparent thriller about a perfect job at a Google/Apple like silicon valley tech company that turns into a nightmare. It sounds like the type of dangers-of-technology thriller Michael Crichton might write today. Despite the source and the ads proclaiming as much, doesn’t seem to try to be a thriller at all. What’s kind of fun about the movie is that dawning realization, that this is what we’re getting and where this movie seems to want to go. I was really up for this while it lasted.

What is this if not a thriller like some internet-age The Firm where Emma Watson becomes a hot shot protégé at a tech company, stumbles on a conspiracy and ends up on the run from shadowy corporate goons? It’s more of a speculative satire that takes us one more inch from where we are now into a social media surveillance state. It doesn’t have the razor sharp teeth of a Black Mirror but what it does pretty well, is hone in on – not the technology – but the hip, chillaz, silicon valley culture and twist it into something effectively sinister.

Watson plays Mae Holland, a young lady who gets the opportunity of a millennial’s lifetime when she aces the wacky interview and gets a job at The Circle, a tech company that builds the computer technology that is shaping the world. It’s not entirely clear what she’s doing there (customer service?) or what their products even are, but it’s a snappy Apple-like campus with Dog Yoga, hip parties featuring Beck, open concept workspaces, Karen Gillan and a casual culture. Every Friday company president Bailey (Tom Hanks) stands before the staff and a wall screen that displays their latest step in sharing the human experience. Today it’s SeeChange, tiny cameras planeted everywhere that can show everyone anything.

The interesting twist here is that none of this seems odd to Mae. Even in the movie’s best scene where two co-workers interrogate her about her weekend because weekend work isn’t mandatory (just strongly encouraged through social pressure to share) and she didn’t tell them about her dad’s (Bill Paxton) latest health issue (because now he can wear a watch that will send The Circle his vitals). The Circle presents an entirely one-sided and seductive case for all of the great social and health benefits of being watched 24/7 and The Circle itself doesn’t blink in the satire. Circle eventually gets to a point where Mae is spied on when she least suspects it and where another movie would make that her turning point against the dystopia, this one sends her deeper into it. The movie gets more interesting the more Mae becomes a complicit actor and advocate for The Circle’s latest propaganda. She goes fully “Transparent” because the perfectly-cast charm of Tom Hanks tells us that “secrets are lies”. Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) takes us from technology-dependent to brainwashed cult very easily.

Pin-point accuracy of the satire keeps this movie ticking along nicely while it goes – but Ponsoldt gets derailed when it comes to molding any of this into a story – with an ending. It’s only when it hits it’s rushed climax and immediate ending when it reveals to be all for not. The movie has an all-star cast in big and small roles. It sets up characters, like John Boyega’s secret Circle member resistant to the changes, or storylines like Mae’s parents struggling with dad’s MS, and the lets them drift away from the movie. There is a version of this story that makes a better and darker movie, where Mae gets sucked further and further into this cult, becomes a dehumanized part of the system and never sees the light with tragic consequences – that was the movie The Circle lead me into wanting it to be. That nasty turn is where this movie would have stood out and got people talking. I wanted to see Arlington Road, The Wicker Man or The Stepford Wives (all originals) by the end of this.

Instead we get an abrupt about-face of everything the movie hasn’t just set up but passionately makes the satirical and ironic case for. It’s not clear where The Circle got shredded down of any identity into a routine studio techno thriller. Maybe in the screenplay adaptation, maybe in the editing process. Maybe some studio suits came in and demanded Emma Watson be the hero of this film. Maybe her agent. Maybe a darker version was test screened and scrapped at the last minute when enraged Harry Potter and Bosom Buddies fans in the audience revolted. What happened doesn’t matter because the ending feels like a last minute studio noted edit. By comparison remember Arlington Road? It’s not a particularly great movie, but it’s sheer out-there balls and tenacity to stick to its vision made it memorable. This movie breaks down, turns tail and retreats toward mediocrity.

There is also a version of this story that doesn’t end darkly, that has a more Hollywood happy ending – and if the movie had set that up and executed it well, that would have been just fine too. It’s not a Darker-is-Better mantra, it’s about the movie telling a story and committing to it. The Circle’s tries to have it both ways and ends up a confused, over-edited mess. It’s unforgivable and sours everything that came before, which is a shame because there is some good stuff before that.

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