The Circle: Style Over Substance

The Circle (2017) stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young woman who lands a dream job at a tech company called The Circle. Skeptical at first, she comes to embrace The Circle’s vision of total openness and transparency, until ultimately uncovering the company’s nefarious agenda. It is based on a novel of the same name by Dave Eggers. The Circle is visually impressive, blending current and speculative technology to bring to life a world where the digital and physical overlap. If Apple made a movie, it would look like this. Clean, simple, elegant. Unfortunately, its message is lost in a plot thinner than an iPhone 7.

The Circle was founded by Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) and Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and designed by Ty Lafitte (John Boyega). Since growing into a Google-esque tech giant, Ty Lafitte has faded into the background, becoming an Emmanuel Goldstein-like figure who quietly opposes its agenda. The Circle integrates everything about your life into one system, seeking to acquire an ever-increasing amount of personal data, including placing cameras all over the world to monitor and analyze all human activity.

The Circle is a progressive and hip company that provides everything for its employees on its massive campus. Parallels to Apple and Steve Jobs are obvious (Eamon Bailey even holds casual talks where he announces products to his employees). Employees are peer pressured into conformity and relying on The Circle for social acceptance, entertainment, and even health. While employees are continually encouraged to “become more transparent,” Stenton and Bailey operate in secrecy, hiding their future plans and true motivations. Their agenda is so secret, not even the film’s audience ever finds out what they’re up to.

Is privacy important? Is transparency always good? Those are the questions I thought this film set out to explore. Don’t expect any clear answers. Mae Holland is converted to The Circle’s philosophy after she steals a kayak and would have drowned in San Francisco Bay if not for the cameras secretly recording her activity. She decides to go “fully transparent,” broadcasting her every experience through cameras. Later, however, she is pressured into using this technology to find her ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who flees the cameras and drives off the San Francisco Bridge. Though depressed, she determines to “fix” the system. “When a plane crashes, you make planes safer, you don’t stop flying,” she tells her parents.

She “fixes the system” by turning The Circle’s technology against Stenton and Bailey, with the help of Ty Lafitte. “We’re so fucked,” Bailey whispers to Stenton, anticipating the reveal of their sinister plot. The audience, however, is never told what they were planning to do. So the film’s message is, I guess, complete transparency is good depending on who uses it. Without knowing the consequences of Stenton and Bailey’s success, however, it’s difficult to say who is right and who is wrong. Their technology saved Mae’s life, and despite one embarrassing moment involving her parents caught on film, there are really no negative consequences to Mae’s 24-hour surveillance.

In fact, the “total transparency” portion was one of the weakest spots in the film. It would have been a great opportunity to illustrate why privacy is important, yet Mae seems perfectly content. She never gets sick or has a bad day, crippling self-doubt, a clumsy accident, vulnerable moment, or anything that would suggest being watched all the time is undesirable or even impractical, except for that one moment when she accidentally sees her parents having sex. She never takes a shower, has indigestion, or feels lonely and cries? Who are the millions of people watching her all day at work? Don’t they also have jobs?

I think The Circle would have been a much better movie if it had a more realistic plot. Say a jealous coworker somehow uses The Circle’s technology or its social engineering to get revenge on Mae, messing with her life or destroying her personal relationships, over career advancement or a love interest. That’s a scenario millions of working Americans can relate to. Instead, we’re expected to believe thousands of people who work and socialize together, even on weekends, never have any personality conflicts, fall in love, hook up, or get into fights? No one at this company even has any children. I’m not sure if the filmmakers deliberately excluded those common experiences, or they were just being lazy.

There were some great moments in the film. I loved the comments that popped up on screen from “viewers” responding to events in Mae’s life. Imagine if your life was a YouTube channel, and anyone could leave comments as events unfolded. Ridiculous. In another scene, Mae walks past a sculpture protesting a dictatorial regime and mentions how millions of Circle users have sent “frowns” to that dictator. It was a hilarious jab at pointless social media activism.

Ultimately, The Circle was visually interesting, but failed to have an impact. It currently has a 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, much lower than Emma Watson’s other recent release, a Beauty and the Beast remake. Critics describe it as sloppy, aimless, frustrating, self-sabotaging, and a spectacular failure. More than that, it wastes a great cast, visual style, and concept on a mediocre and poorly-executed plot. What a disappointment.

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