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The Circle Doesn't Quite Complete Itself

<i>The Circle</i> Doesn't Quite Complete Itself

The Circle is an engrossing premise, but fails to deliver in the small moments. This technological dystopia earns 2 out of 5.


When Mae (Emma Watson) goes to work for The Circle (an Apple- or Google-like massive tech enterprise), she's ecstatic to leave her boring temp work and become part of something bigger and grander. At first, thoughtful and introverted Mae is a bit hesitant to be the social butterfly everyone expects. But after head honchos at the The Circle scoop her up from some difficult circumstances (including insisting that her ailing father joins the company health plan) she is soon won over. Mae is blown away by the transparency and opportunity offered by the leadership at The Circle. What if they used their advanced surveillance technology to ensure that no child ever went missing? What if politicians posted all their emails, meetings, and phone calls to TruYou (an all-encompassing social media profile) to stay accountable to their constituents?

Even after engaging with a mysterious employee (John Boyega) who expresses misgivings of The Circle's overreach, Mae decides to take a new step and "go completely transparent" - allowing cameras into every aspect of her life except the bathroom. After all, she reasons, we behave better when we're being held accountable by others; humanity has limitless potential if secrets and lies are obliterated. But being watched by millions has more dire consequences than Mae considers, and things soon go off the rails.

What Works?

There's something so engaging about a dystopia, and The Circle is no exception. It's easy to be drawn into the developing plot points and wonder what will happen next. And the questions and issues the film tackles are important, especially about privacy. Watson is at first easy to identify with as a protagonist, both excited for the future but hesitant about her surroundings, and Tom Hanks (as company founder Eamon Bailey) and Karen Gillan as Mae's friend Annie also give compelling performances in supporting roles.

What Doesn't?

First, while Watson is a precious and talented young lady, her American accent is still very poor. Why the filmmakers felt the need to obscure her natural dialect, I can't be sure. Second, and more importantly, this film doesn't really seem to know what it's doing with those aforementioned big questions and issues. The set-up is all there: a massive tech company has increasing reach and influence. But it sort of flails from there, both in its realism and what it does with its characters. The company leaders (Hanks and Patton Oswalt) are written as secretive and possibly nefarious, but [SPOILER ALERT!] no sinister plot is ever exposed beyond... surveillance - which they admit to, and is indeed part of The Circle way of life! After being faced with the devastating consequences of forcing surveillance where it shouldn't be, Mae vows to improve the system, not destroy it, but even by the end of the film I'm left wondering what exactly she meant. As the movie goes on, she makes more and more decisions that don't seem to fit with her personality and cleverness, without enough motive as to why. And the end of the film might be the weakest part. There's a bit of grandstanding that's meant to be powerful and thoughtful, but the audience is actually left with a strangely ambivalent non-ending that feels far more like an early draft than a finished film.

Christian Worldview Elements / Spiritual Themes

There are several themes of social ethics which are addressed, especially the pros and cons of living in a surveillance state. Is the ability to expose criminals and overthrow despots worth the loss of relationships, arguments, and any semblance of privacy? Some of the people at The Circle veer into deeper worldview waters, especially on the nature of humans and humanity. One character says "I believe in the perfectibility of human beings.” Another insists, “Secrets are lies” and that privacy is "selfish" and "stealing."

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers)

  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use 
  • Language/Profanity: One F-word; a few mild instances of "oh my God."
  • Sexuality/Nudity: A husband and wife are briefly shown (on a surveillance camera) having sex in bed (she is in a nightdress; he is shirtless). It’s not graphic and is played for an accidental/embarrassment angle, not to be erotic.
  • Violence/Frightening/Intense: One particularly intense scene where social networking is used to track and restrain certain individuals. One person is chased and then accosted by the police. Another is chased in his vehicle by a motorcycle and several drones, and ends up driving off a bridge.
  • Drugs/Alcohol: People are shown drinking wine and beer. One woman mentions that she's been taking drugs to keep up with her work.

The Bottom Line

RECOMMENDED FOR: People skeptical of modern technology and into theorizing about what the next privacy overreach will look like. People who really enjoyed reading The Circle by Dave Eggers.

NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Those hooked on the (far superior) grit and finesse of technological dystopia TV show Black Mirror.

The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt, opened in theaters April 28, 2017; available for home viewing August 1, 2017. It runs 110 minutes and stars Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headley, Bill Paxton and Karen Gillan. Watch the trailer for The Circle here.

Debbie Holloway is a storyteller, creator, critic and advocate having adventures in Brooklyn, New York.

Publication date: April 28, 2017

Image courtesy: ©STX Entertainment