What is your privacy worth to you? Would you be willing to give up your every moment of privacy if it meant nurturing world peace? Every minute of your day (except for a few minutes when using the facilities) would be recorded and stored and accessible to anyone. Not one moment, not one sentence, not one email or text or comment would be out of reach of a world ready to cannibalize and scrutinize every happy thought, every consumption of food, every last dark secret.
If you’re thinking we’re already there, you wouldn’t be completely wrong. With our current vitriolic political spectrum and the reliance of so many on social media to feel needed and important, lies and secrets are exploited to the nth degree, using every word, no matter how innocent, into a systematic war of opposing viewpoints. But The Circle, the new film based on Dave Eggers’s novel of the same the name, would have you believe that war and hostility could come to an end simply when everyone in the world becomes entirely transparent.
Emma Watson plays Mae, an intelligent young woman stuck in a dead-end customer service job at a nondescript water company. Her father (Bill Paxton, delivering such a bittersweet performance) has multiple sclerosis and her mother (Glenne Headly) may be the strongest character in the film without even realizing it, taking care of a husband she loves while wishing the best for a daughter who just can’t seem to find her footing. One day, Mae’s best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) scores her a highly coveted interview with the tech conglomerate, the Circle. Mae begins work in customer service, but soon finds herself a rising star — one who’ll face huge consequences for the decisions she makes.
The trailers would have you believe that Mae discovers some shady secrets behind the scenes of the Circle that she attempts to expose, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, after Mae’s life is saved by technology the Circle has employed around the globe, Mae becomes so ingrained in the culture the Circle advocates, she volunteers to become the first Circle employee to be “transparent,” that is to say, she wears a camera 24/7. Nothing is off-limits, and though it’s all candy and roses at first, things take a dark turn when one of her grand ideas goes a little too far.
And that’s where the story centers most of its focus — how far is too far. The Circle’s founder, Bailey (Tom Hanks, fantastic as always) and his partner, Stenton (Patton Oswalt), have a way of making the idea of a transparent world (where secrets have been all but vanquished) gloriously loving, as if not doing it makes you inherently evil. It’s Kool-Aid at its finest (as Mae jokingly mentions to the mysterious Ty (John Boyega) at one of the Circle’s many after hours parties). But because Bailey is such a nice guy (one that Hanks pulls off without a sweat), and the atmosphere of the Circle is so honest and open, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that everything the Circle is trying to accomplish is a good thing. Until it isn’t. And the truth is, though good in theory, the idea in practice leads to a lot more danger than some are willing to allow.
Part of what Eggers is trying to dive into is the idea that it’s easy to enforce something on someone else, so long as you don’t have to participate. In other words, once an idea or a proposal or a system you set in place begins to affect you in a personal way, would you still be willing to support that idea? One of the eeriest scenes in the film are when a couple of “social watchers” (for lack of a better term) approach Mae after her first week on the job and start to query her about her lack of openness with the rest of the Circle. She hasn’t accessed any of the Circle’s social threads, or sought advice from anyone at the company, and she left for the whole weekend without participating in any of the Circle’s fantastic weekend events. It’s all optional, of course, but not so much, as everything is being monitored, even before she decides to go transparent.
If you’re worried about what’s happening in the world today with so much technology out there that you don’t feel like you have any privacy because it feels as if someone is watching your every move, The Circle will only enhance those fears. After all, it’s rather scary to think what would happen if a company or a government or a world leader got their hands on this type of technology and was able to parlay that into a world-wide phenomenon as it’s done in the film. And I like where Eggers is going with this whole idea, but I don’t think the movie truly goes deep enough.
The moments that focus on this concept, and the actions taken in regards to the uncovering of whatever conspiracy is happening at the Circle, are talked about but never truly acted upon. This is one reason why the third act feels wholly rushed. By the time Mae understands what she’s truly gotten herself into, there’s hardly any time left to do anything about it in a real, meaningful way. Thus we get a climax that, though incredibly fun to watch, doesn’t have any true closure — for the characters or the audience.
But really, that’s my only gripe with the film. The trailer wants very hard for you to believe the film is a taut thriller, but in reality, The Circle is an interesting drama that tries hard to be a thriller, but doesn’t seem to understand what that means. The rest of the film, though, does a good job of pacing its run time quite effectively to leave you feeling a little uneasy about how close we are to fiction becoming reality. Is this really what you want? If it is, by all means, work for the Circle. But please, leave me and mine alone to live out our days with our privacy, a rare commodity that is becoming extinct a lot faster than we realize.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. If you would like to see a review for this, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.