Based on Dave Eggers novel and helmed by James Ponsoldt, The Circle is less eye opener than reminder of where we’re eventually headed. As Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy said nearly 15 years ago, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”
While not as imminently insidious as Person of Interest’s “Machine,” founder Eamon Bailey’s (Tom Hanks) Circle is every bit as invasive and foreboding. What’s perhaps most unsettling is that Hanks’ humble Norman Rockwell persona sells his social media hydra as innocently as a little kid on the corner hawking lemonade.
Literally encircled on a sprawling Goggle-like Bay Area campus, Circle employees are encouraged to join hundreds of social media groups to “connect and share.” And that includes “guppy” Mae Holland (Emma Watson). Mentored by goopy corporate culture warriors, spouting slogans like “secrets are lies, sharing is caring and privacy is theft,” Mae is soon drawn into the dark matter of the company’s ostensibly innocuous ether.
While not initially “100 percent” (the Circle’s corporate mantra), Mae relishes her private time kayaking on the Bay. When a deep fog causes her to capsize, it’s the Circle to the rescue. Which brings us to the “big tech idea” that makes sharing so inescapably easy: ping-pong-ball sized cameras (nothing new here, we’ve already seen tiny insect-sized cameras unveiled by our alphabet agencies). Placed literally everywhere, the cameras turn the Circle into Big Brother on steroids.
Needless to say, after Mae’s dramatic and very public helicopter rescue, Eamon and his acolytes can’t wait for Mae to share every part of her life with the Circle. And she does, placing cameras on her clothing and throughout her apartment. Boyfriend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), co-worker Annie (Karen Gillan), and Circle tech guru Ty (John Boyega) share concerns over the company’s growing invasiveness. Ty is the insider conscience behind Circle’s tech. Marginalized by Eamon and creepy co-founder Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), Ty’s TruYou online identity system was meant to be a digital utopia before being hijacked by Eamon.
Early on, Mae succumbs to the Circle’s ethos with evangelical zeal, proposing new Circle members be recruited from voter registration rolls. She then takes things one step further by insisting that voting be compulsory. Hunting down criminals is next. Using millions of cameras scattered worldwide, participants are tasked to find a woman accused of child abuse–which they do in just over 10 minutes–on live video. Next to be hunted is Mercer. Here, Mae discovers the very tragic side of “sharing” when her boyfriend tries to evade Circle camera drones.
The Circle adroitly confronts the pitfalls of hyper-tech surveillance without diving too deep into the tech-speak or instrumentality to achieve it. It’s no surprise that the data miners at the Circle intend to leverage their “SeeChange” tech to sell products and resell information to third parties, to lead us like sheep into the comforting solace of conformity. The commercialization of data, “weaponized” to serve the gods of government and marketing is not news. What makes this thriller so disturbing is how easily we’re seduced by the veiled threat of total transparency, especially when presented by a charismatic Tim Robbins/Steve Jobs evangelist. Eamon’s presentation of Circle’s merits unites worship with warfare. You trust him. You love him. What he’s selling is good for you, for the world. Time to suit up and boot up for the cause.
The Circle’s pacing, while predicable, achieves what it set out to do: make a film that beat by beat addresses a socially arresting topic. That said, the ending leaves a bit too much unanswered, too many loose ends untied. It underscores The Circle’s one innate weakness: lowering the bar of a timely, important subject to the level of TV drama. One has to wonder, could The Circle have reached a loftier, more stylized introspective tableaux in the hands of a David Lynch or M. Night Shyamalan?