By Matthew C. Brown. The future is now. The singularity is now. Dystopia is now. That’s the truth of the matter. People often talk about dystopian sci-fi as if it’s this far-off thing, but in the case of The Circle, the dilemmas contained within James Ponsoldt’s film are more relevant and imminent than people care to admit.
Considering last October’s legislation, which continues a trend toward anti-privacy and corporate power over online data, the theses of the film, as articulated by Mae Holland (Emma Watson), is particularly important to remember: “Secrets are lies,” and “Privacy is theft.” These statements can join the long line of classic group-think and hive mind rhetoric. Though Ponsoldt’s film is sleek, modern, and topical, the narrative that he and Dave Eggers (author of the novel) came up with for the film adaptation is particularly bland and unmoving. It keeps the film from being engrossing, let alone entertaining.
The story follows Mae as she fights to get ahead at her low-tier telecommunications job, while her parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) struggle to pay for her father’s Multiple Sclerosis treatments — which, in another display of the film’s contemporary relevance, are not covered by insurance. Mae has resigned herself to her plight when she gets a call from her friend, Annie (Karen Gillan), who tells Mae she got her an interview at The Circle, a giant social networking and technology company. (Think Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple, consolidated into one giant corporation.) After an unorthodox interview, Mae is hired into the Customer Experience department, which is basically the same job as before, only for much better pay and — conveniently enough — health benefits.
After a week’s worth of acclimation and being told she really should be taking part in the social activities on campus, Mae begins to fit in. While things seem to be going well, Mae still has trouble jiving with the group mentality because, really, she’s a loner at heart. But after a second act kayaking mishap ends with an impossible rescue, Mae comes to see that The Circle is more “hands-on” than she ever realized — they are, in reality, watching her.
Enter Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who arrives with spin tactics concerning the mini cameras that saved her life. Bailey convinces Mae to “go transparent” with these cameras — called “SeeChange’ — which allows millions of people to follow her in real time and comment on her day-to-day life. This is all fine at first, but before long Mae begins to see how the true implications of the digital age can strain personal relationships.
The Circle means to convey the problems we may have with interconnectivity if we go just a little too far conceptually or our technology ever outpaces our ability to test and control its effects. Where this film loses its step is how it discusses the technologies we create, and the applications those technologies have for controlling people and society. The surveillance state is nothing new, and The Circle is just another lukewarm warning.
One of the critiques of the novel is that it never offered any solutions. The same can be said for the film, and really for the entire dystopian film genre that has been so prevalent of late. Although the narrative suspense is lacking in Ponsoldt’s vision, the content and style are familiar enough that we should be worried by how close we already are to its woes. But here’s a thought: if we are better able to show the world what to do rather than what not to do then we just might save ourselves yet.
Directed by James Ponsoldt.
Produced by Anthony Bregman, Gary Goetzman, and James Ponsoldt.
Screenplay by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers.
Based on the novel by Dave Eggers.
Starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Bill Paxton, Glenne Headly, and Ellar Coltrane.
Rated PG-13 for dull gloom ‘n’ doom.
5 out of 10