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The Circle squanders a fascinating premise about the dangers of technocracy

The movie, based on Dave Eggers’s novel about a Google-style tech giant, is a perplexingly awful misfire.

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, and Patton Oswalt in The Circle.
Circling up.
Francois Duhamel / STX Entertainment
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Circle is a bafflingly bad movie.

Baffling, because all of its ingredients are so promising. Director James Ponsoldt makes good movies, like The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now. He co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers, who wrote the novel on which the film is based. It stars Emma Watson and Tom Hanks and an interesting supporting cast — Ellar Coltrane, John Boyega, Nate Corddry, Bill Paxton (in his final film role), Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt. Danny Elfman wrote the score. I mean, Beck performs on stage during the movie.

But you can't just whirl all your favorite things in a blender and expect the result to taste great.

The Circle is confusing and strangely abbreviated, as if they shot a whole movie and then, worried that people would be bored by all this history and character development, cut out half the scenes. It's like watching the Wikipedia summary of a movie, or a thumbnail sketch of a painting. People walk on screen and do things. A plot occurs. But nobody has a personality or a history — not even the Circle itself.

The Circle is basically about a parallel-universe Google

So what is the Circle? It's a tech company — actually, let's not sugar-coat it; the Circle is Google, if Google Plus had worked out and replaced Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, PayPal, Venmo, and a dozen other services most of us have installed on our phones right now. The Circle's signature product is a thing called True You, which (from what you can make out from the movie) ties people's real identities to their online presence, including all their information, their emails, their texts, location data — basically everything most of us already give up freely to various internet companies.

Emma Watson in The Circle
There are a lot of screens in The Circle.
Frank Masi / See Change Productions

Also like Google (and many other Silicon Valley companies), the Circle has a one-stop-shopping campus on which their employees spend most of their time. At Google's campus in Mountain View, California (called the “Googleplex”), employees can eat vegan sushi, get a haircut, join an affinity group with other employees, go bowling, and hear a world leader give a talk, all in the course of a normal day, if they can spare the time away from their desk. The Circle's campus has all these amenities, too, from dog kennels to dorms so employees don't have to worry about commuting after one of the rad parties that are always happening to “connect” the Circlers to one another.

On her first day working in “customer experience” at the Circle — it's a euphemism for being on the customer help desk — Mae Holland (Watson) walks past the Dali Lama and is handed a shiny new tablet with her name on it, and she feels euphorically happy about working at a company where all of her young, attractive co-workers are affable and enthusiastic. That feeling only grows when her friend Annie (Gillan, playing Scottish for once) helps her get her parents on the Circle's health plan so that they can stop worrying about paying for her father's MS treatments.

Mae's still a “guppy” (the lingo for newbie Circlers) when the whole campus goes to hear Eamon Bailey (Hanks), one of the company's three main directors, talk about a new invention: an inexpensive, small, almost undetectable camera that's about the size of a ping-pong ball and can be placed virtually anywhere to broadcast high-definition video straight to the Internet. He demonstrates first by showing a beach where he likes to surf — and then 10 others. Then he reveals that Circlers have placed the cameras all over the world already, which, he tells the assembled Circlers, will help to eradicate bad behavior from lawless citizens and despotic regimes alike. When everyone's being watched, everyone behaves, right?

We still tend to believe technology is good for us

If that sounds nervewrackingly dystopic to you, well, good. You're paying attention.

Tech innovators tend to have a disturbingly optimistic view of human nature, and politicians seem increasingly inclined to go along with it, on both the left and the right. President Barack Obama was famously starry-eyed about tech's ability to bring about social good, and President Donald Trump has tasked his son-in-law with directing an office that brings in ideas from business and tech to (sigh) disrupt the government. Even though stories crop up nearly every week about some invasion of privacy or swindle or labor abuse or access overreach by one tech company or another (see Uber, or Juicero), people still seem to think that tech's end skews toward basic goodness.

That's baked into the industry. When I was a college student studying information technology and computer science in the early aughts, the presumption in every class I took was that our goal was to “solve problems,” and that meant social problems. We identified the social problem and then came up with a technological solution. That, we were trained to believe, was what we were doing in tech: being altruistic. We were the smart ones, the powerful ones, the magic ones, and of course we would use our powers for good.

Tom Hanks in The Circle
Eamon Bailey takes some notes from Steve Jobs, it would seem.
STX Productions

That sometimes helps make sense of why we're all so quick to enthusiastically adopt new technology — and I'm including myself here, as I write this review on a MacBook Air, then file it by connecting to the internet with an iPhone I've tethered to the computer. We know that tech can be used in ways that aren't good for people, and often is. We know the government can spy on us; we talk about how distracted we are and how miserable social media makes us, and we are aware of how much abusive, disgusting behavior the internet has made possible.

But if someone were to introduce a cheap, wireless, ping pong ball sized camera to market tomorrow, a bunch of media columnists would write about why it's bad, and a lot of us would nod our heads, but then we'd figure out ways to use it and soon we'd just assume they were everywhere. I vividly remember being in college classrooms full of future technologists — not Luddites, but people who wanted to make a living creating software and systems — who were highly skeptical that anyone would want a cell phone that could also get your email for you. What would be the point? Yet I'm positive every one of us owns a smartphone today.

The trouble (beside the overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white makeup of the ones identifying and solving the problems) is that tech itself is not good or bad. It’s neutral. It's the people making and using the things technologists make that determine what it actually is, and whether its uses are moral and ethical. Tracking software on your phone can be great; it's helped me recover a lost phone more than once. But it also means the cell phone company, and by extension the government and whatever corporations your data has been sold to, has a pretty good idea of where you are a lot of the time. Uber knows where you are not just when you call for a car, but also when you delete the app from your phone.

Every altruistic-sounding tech innovation can be twisted into something not quite as rosy, and that's what The Circle means to demonstrate.

Surveilling dictators may sound great, but a surveillance society is the stuff of dystopian novels from Brave New World to The Hunger Games for a reason. People like Michel Foucault have gone so far as to call surveillance societies more barbaric than more “primitive” torture-based societies, where they might cut off your hand if you were caught committing a crime, but at least you had your privacy.

The Circle skimps on its storytelling, and that’s everyone’s loss

Given all of the above, I don't think we can ever have too many cautionary tales about the trouble with technocracy, especially since we seem to be inexorably headed in that direction. That's why the failure of The Circle to actually cohere into a film is a bit of a tragedy.

It's due to a few weird factors. One is that, while the novel builds out a rich world at the Circle's campus over many pages, the film constructs it in about three quick strokes. In the novel we get to fall in love with the campus along with Mae, and thus feel along with her the shock of discovering the appealing surface hides something more nefarious. Here, we don't have time to get into it at all. We don’t know what the Circle’s software really does, and we don’t know why it’s taken over; it’s possible the screenplay is counting on us to fill in the blanks with our knowledge of Google and Facebook, but that seems like a tall order for your average moviegoer.

This lack of context is true of the characters, as well — particularly a shadowy stranger played by Boyega that Mae meets at a party, who plays a key role later on in the film that’s meant to be surprising. In The Circle, nothing is surprising, because we don't have time to learn what to be surprised about. There is one moment of great emotional impact in the story, but it's blunted, because we've barely had time to get to know the character.

John Boyega in The Circle
An enigmatic character.
Frank Masi / STX Productions

Also, Watson is strangely, inexplicably not good in this thinly written role. She's a wide-eyed blank, with no personality or motivation other than being happy to not sit in a cubicle as she did at her last job (which is the most believable thing about her character). Is she mischievous? Flirtatious? Trusting? Conniving? I have no idea, but her character takes some odd turns, and it took me about 20 minutes and two slices of pizza after the film to realize what actually happens at the end.

I think The Circle was going for “enigmatic fable.” Dystopian stories often have an eerie, abstract quality to them, and this one wants simplicity. In fact, the old Shaker dance song “Simple Gifts” crops up several times, as a ringtone and in a creepy version over the credits. The lyrics of the song are telling: “'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free / 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be / And when we find ourselves in the place just right / 'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.” The film's various visions of simplicity — and its conclusion about the corrupting power of technocracy — are a powerful, frightening warning about our future. But the film packages them into something hollow and pointless, a disappointing misfire. It's our loss.

The Circle opens in theaters on April 28.

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