The most believable part of The Circle, which opens in theaters Friday, is the tech. Sadly, the film’s arguments surrounding privacy, which are integral to the movie’s plot, are a muddled mess, portrayed in ways that lack nuance and understanding of the world its audience is already living in.
The film, which is based on the Dave Eggers 2013 novel of the same name, is centered around a tech behemoth—called The Circle—based in Silicon Valley. The Circle is fictional but the company and its products take major cues from existing tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Apple.
Its central product, TruYou, is a social network and identity platform that also ties together your communications (text and video), banking, and even health data, all in one place. Even this expository part of The Circle’s supposed dystopian universe doesn’t feel far off enough to be effective. Every day, millions of users already entrust much of that exact same data to major tech companies, all under the guise of a convenient “ecosystem.” Since the book’s release, we’ve come far closer to that reality. So while the tone of TruYou’s reveal—the score, the intentionally jarring enthusiasm with which protagonist Mae Holland (Emma Watson) describes it—is meant to be dramatic, it doesn’t quite come off that way.
The company is led by a charismatic CEO, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who comes across like a nicer Steve Jobs, and talks in buzzwords about the value and importance of “transparency” and sharing data with The Circle. The company motto is, “sharing is caring,” which staffers chant at all-hands meetings held in big auditoriums. Then there’s Mae, who at the start of the movie is working a temp job for the water company and living with her parents. When Mae’s friend (Karen Gillian) gets her an interview at The Circle, her entire world changes. Mae quickly becomes one of The Circle’s most visible and loudly chanting disciples.
After being hired, Mae is immediately sucked into the glossy, cult-like world of the company. Employees live in dorms, have access to on-site Yoga, free sushi, and after-work parties headlined by Beck. Although Mae is at first overwhelmed by The Circle, she is also very grateful for the opportunity to work there. But work at The Circle doesn’t end at 5pm. Employees are encouraged to attend “not at all mandatory” (they are totally mandatory) after-work activities and excursions. Quickly, Mae’s life becomes The Circle.
The Circle does a nice job portraying the “perks” that are so rampant at major tech companies in the US. On the surface, these perks (which in the real world often include free car rentals, laundry and dry cleaning facilities, free food, on-site barbers, on-campus health clinics, and more) sound great, but the dirty little secret is that these types of “benefits” are designed to keep employees always working. In The Circle, as in real life, the line between cult and company is often hard to distinguish.
Again, this is a nearly accurate portrayal. Meanwhile, the tone of the film is incredulity. Watson portrays a shellshocked Mae who seems overwhelmed that such a place actually exists (even though the campus is a short drive from her home). But this world isn’t incredible. It’s quite realistic, in fact. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Bay Area work at places that look like The Circle right now.
By agreeing to ingest a biometric sensor and wear an always-on fitness band, Mae is able to get her parents signed onto her health care plan, providing her father (the late Bill Paxton) much better treatment options for his Multiple Sclerosis. The fitness band, which is waterproof and always connected, is more advanced than what Fitbit or Apple are currently selling, but is still totally plausible. With the advancement in sensor technologies and software, wearable makers are able to gather more and more accurate information about users. This move to health is exciting, but as shown in The Circle, it can also crop over into creepy quite easily. And yet, it’s just not creepy enough.
Other things aren’t quite so realistic. There are a lot of sporadic plot points in the film, including Mae’s platonic relationship with a man she grew up with (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) who despises everything The Circle stands for, and her quasi-friendship with Ty (John Boyega), the actual founder of TruYou, who is now disillusioned and working on the fringes of the company. Both of these characters are important to the climax of the film, but are developed so poorly that the viewer cares very little about either. Their relationships with Mae also feel underdeveloped and ineffective. For instance, Ty takes it upon himself to entrust Mae with secrets of The Circle—his motivation is never clear—but it’s after learning those secrets that she decides to drink the corporate Kool-Aid.
Instead of developing the characters to any depth, the plot skids ahead towards an incident where Mae is dramatically saved by The Circle because her peril was spotted by one of the tiny cameras that the company had placed all over the city. That experience leads Mae to the epiphany that privacy, as we know it, is bad.
She becomes a sort of Circle evangelist. Bailey and his crony/COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswald) come up with a plan for Mae to become “fully transparent.” That is, Mae will record and broadcast every aspect of her life using The Circle’s tiny cameras.
This weird Truman Show meets Facebook Live experiment means that millions of people all over the world are watching Mae’s actions. “Do you behave differently when you aren’t being watched?” Bailey asks Maein front of The Circle’s staff. Yes, she responds. She behaves worse. A more skilled film might have zeroed into that disconnect between the persona we put out on social media, versus how we actually live our lives, but The Circle is not that film. Instead, it focuses on the very basic (and very real, as in, it has been happening for more than a decade) concept that individuals are increasingly willing to give up their privacy in exchange for convenience.
As a film, The Circle does a nice job showing off tech that feels realer than ever. The tiny connected cameras in The Circle’s global surveillance network seem like the next evolution of a GoPro. Just last week, Facebook showed off its latest plans for high-resolution 360-degree cameras that can capture more of the world than ever before. Earlier this week, Amazon introduced a new voice-activated camera that uses machine learning to help determine how hot your outfit is. The notion that tech companies will put tiny cameras all around the world doesn’t feel dystopic because it’s a journey we’re already on.
Mae clearly sees the toll The Circle is taking on her personal friendships, which aren’t interesting enough to go into. Instead of listening to her rightfully concerned friends, she finds even more ways to argue against privacy of any type. It leads to her most ridiculous idea, SoulSearch, a way for all the collective members of The Circle, to track down criminals—or people that just don’t like to post on social media—in real time. A live demonstration of the service ends in tragedy (and the tragedy is totally Mae’s fault), but the film never does a good job convincing us if Mae feels guilt or remorse.
And here is where the film and book completely diverge. In the book, Mae remains committed to The Circle and to the idea of “transparency,” consequences be damned. The film has a very different ending, but it’s not any more satisfying. Moreover, where the book had a somewhat nuanced message about the privacy-free future that very near-term technology can have on society, the film can’t seem to articulate if it believes transparency can make the world better or not. Instead, the message oscillates somewhere in between, vague and weak.
This is a film that had the opportunity to be timely and relevant. If anything, the film didn’t go far enough, because everything seems so plausible. That plausibility—the fact that we’re already living in a world the film is trying to portray as a scary future—hurts the film. Whatever it’s trying to say, it never really lands.
The Circle opens nationwide April 28.