Review: 'The Circle' Is More Cautionary Tale Than Nail-Biting Thriller

Apr 26, 2017

Imagine what you’d get if Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram were consolidated into one company.

Odds are, you’d wind up with something that looked very much like “The Circle,” the fictitious Internet giant that is on its way to world dominance in director James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of the Dave Eggers’ best seller. 

The purpose of The Circle is to make going online less of a hassle. Frustrated by having to remember dozens of different passwords? Sign up for one of The Circle’s TrueYou accounts and you can bounce from site to site without stopping at any checkpoints.

“It’s the chaos of the Web made elegant,” declares recently hired Mae Holland, a bright, dedicated Circle cheerleader, played by Emma Watson, the “Harry Potter” alumnus who has officially graduated to leading-lady status. Formerly stuck in a low-paying customer service job at the water company, Mae can’t believe her good luck when her friend, Annie (played by Karen Gillan), helps her land an entry-level position at The Circle.

Mae is dazzled by the Circle headquarters, which look like a hipster Shangri-La, full of state-of-the-art workout centers, bocce courts, vegan-friendly cafeterias and pavilions spacious enough to accommodate an after-hours concert by Beck. Mae is also starstruck by the Circle’s founder, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks as a slightly scruffy surfer dude-turned-guru who presides over his all-staff meetings like the WiFi Wizard of Oz. The mantra at The Circle is “sharing is caring” and, as Mae will soon learn, you can never share too much.

What’s most compelling about the movie is that 20 years ago, this would have been classified as science-fiction. Today, it seems perfectly plausible. The world’s insatiable appetite for social media has left millions of people feeling compelled to report on nearly everything they think, see, feel, eat, drink, wear and imagine.

When Mae becomes absorbed into The Circle’s relentless rush of communication, we see her strolling around constantly surrounded by rapidly changing electronic bubbles, each one containing an insight, observation or random thought expressed by one of the legions of Circle addicts to whom Mae is now connected. When Mae decides to participate in a program The Circle calls “going fully transparent,” she commits to living almost every moment in front of tiny cameras that follow her everywhere.

Remember when Jim Carrey starred in “The Truman Show” in 1998 and everyone thought that concept of turning your life into someone else’s entertainment was wacky and far-fetched? How times have changed. And yet, take away the technology and “The Circle” isn’t terribly different than one of those paranoia movies from the 1970s like “Westworld” or “The Stepford Wives” – or, for that matter, one of the many sinister big-business flicks from the 1990s, like “The Firm” or “Rising Sun.”

Mae’s enthusiasm for her work will eventually be clouded by suspicions about what her boss is really up to, as she encounters a former boy-genius named Ty, played by John Boyega, who now haunts the tunnels beneath The Circle’s offices, spreading alarming theories about the company’s ultimate goals.

But although Ponsoldt creates a suitably ominous mood and Mae is an engaging heroine, “The Circle” never makes the leap into full-fledged, nail-biting thriller. Eggers’ novel spent so much time satirizing Mae’s online existence that it lost its tension along the way. The movie wisely throws out most of the book’s extraneous and irritating subplots, but even with a completely overhauled ending it still never gets under your skin the way a genuinely eerie cautionary tale should. “The Circle” is entertaining and mildly engrossing without ever putting you on the edge of your seat. “The China Syndrome” it is not.  

Don’t blame Watson, who has segued remarkably well from an adorable child star into a skilled and amiable young actress, or Hanks, who expertly underplays his character’s unsavory side. Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton are also first-rate as Mae’s parents, who end up torn between supporting their daughter and protecting themselves from the eyes of the world. Boyega does what he can with a role that is significantly diminished from what it was in the book. The same is true of Gilan, who makes a believable transition from gung-ho, go-getter executive to neurotic basket case, even though the exact cause of her breakdown is somewhat vague.

At best, “The Circle” should make you question why so many of us spend inordinate amounts of time putting our daily lives on display and inviting complete strangers to comment on or criticize our choices. At one point, Eamon tells Mae, “It’s only our lies that get us in trouble.” But can’t a surplus of truth and candor be just as dangerous? How much do we really need – or deserve – to know about each other anyway?

While Mae argues that knowledge is a basic human right, it seems like there should be a place for privacy, too. Unfortunately, for the many who are caught in the World Wide Web, that sort of idea may seem as antiquated as a dial-up modem.