‘The Circle’ is all buzzwords, no substance
- Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and John Boyega star.
- 2 stars out of 4.
Dystopian tech drama “The Circle” capitalizes on the exploding role of technology in our lives, seeking to capture the zeitgeist while grappling with the heavy duty issues of the day. It’s a noble, if failed effort, because ultimately, the film is all buzzwords and no substance.
It’s based on Dave Eggers’ novel, and Eggers himself adapted the book for the screen with the film’s director, James Ponsoldt. Ponsoldt’s previous films have been intimate two-handers, from the alcoholism drama “Smashed” and high school romance “The Spectacular Now,” to the excellent David Foster Wallace biopic “The End of the Tour.” As we discover in “The Circle,” there have been some glitches in scaling up. There are too few characters and they’re all poorly established, sketchy ciphers and stereotypes, lacking depth and nuance.
The story follows a young woman, Mae (Emma Watson), who lands her dream job at tech giant The Circle, which is behind the social networking site TruYou. As she soon discovers, things are a lot more complicated than no-strings-attached parties and perks.
Problems: Much of the problem with “The Circle” is with the character of Mae herself. She’s never established as a fully formed person, so she becomes an empty vessel for the ideas of whomever she’s around. If she’s interacting with Circle leader Eamon (Tom Hanks), she’s passionate about disrupting the national voting system with social media. Then suddenly, she’s upset about the lack of regulation and the nefarious collection of personal data while chatting with pal Annie (Karen Gillan) or secretive TruYou founder Ty (John Boyega).
“The Circle” is essentially an episode of HBO’s biting tech satire “Silicon Valley,” just without the humor. Gags about tech culture aren’t played for laughs, but with dead seriousness. An interview sequence where Mae is grilled about “Paul or John,” “Sonic or Mario” is a cringeworthy attempt at capturing the hipster nerd culture of the Valley. A scene where a pair of eager staffers force Mae to set up her social profiles while urging 100 percent “participation” and “communication” is far more sinister than humorous. Cultish behavior echoes throughout, especially during Eamon’s “Dream Friday” talks, where mobs of employees chant and shout “sharing is caring” back at their leader.
Whiplash: However, in establishing Mae as the moral and philosophical center through which we are supposed to experience the privacy obliterating tactics of The Circle, we’re liable to get whiplash from her rapidly changing outlook. She proselytizes the “accountability” and “knowledge” of transparency, but is simultaneously troubled by the effect it has on her personal life. Her character’s changing beliefs are so choppily pieced together within the film that she ultimately becomes an untrustworthy protagonist.
With serious problems in the script and edit, “The Circle” is objectively a bad movie. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some fascinating ideas at play, and at times, this dystopian tech cult drama is somewhat enjoyable. The biggest problem though, is that the film doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. Is the destruction of privacy good or evil? How does transparency operate differently for individuals, corporations and governments? Can the internet mob be channeled into a force for good? “The Circle” floats all these ideas, then lets them drop with a thud. It’s profoundly unsatisfying.
2 out of 4 stars
Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Karen Gillan, Bill Paxton
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use.