Emma Watson is too smart for ‘The Circle’

If the human race could ever be wholly enslaved by a social network, Tom Hanks would be the type to pull it off. As tech patriarch Eamon Bailey, he delivers ominous pronouncements like “I believe in the perfectability of human beings” with a disarmingly warm-and-fuzzy Hanksiness.

But even he can’t save “The Circle,” a clumsy adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 dystopian novel about modern connectedness. Set at a Silicon Valley corporation roughly reminiscent of Google, the film is laughably blunt in message and oddly dated in set design. It feels like the brainchild of middle-aged guys (James Ponsoldt directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers) who still think of Facebook as cutting edge.

Emma Watson stars as Mae, plucked from cubicled-call-center obscurity to join the Circle as a “customer experience” worker. It’s basically a call center, but this one comes with sleek computers, top-notch health care, rock-climbing and yoga classes, and fired-up colleagues. Her bubbly friend Annie (Karen Gillan) has already ascended to the company’s “Gang of 40,” who carry out vague international tasks.

“The Circle” is at its best early on, when Mae’s finding her footing. She’s passive-aggressively ambushed by managers: “We consider you a fully knowable person with unlimited potential!” one of them chirps. They’ve noted her absence at weekend events (“Totally not mandatory! Just for fun!”) and have unsettling amounts of information about her family, including that her father (Bill Paxton, in his final role) has multiple sclerosis.

The revolutionary trappings of the Circle are kind of lame. Bailey devotes one lecture to rolling out what amounts to an eyeball-size spy cam; the company’s supposedly sophisticated friend network is one long chat window. Patton Oswalt, as the company’s shifty-eyed COO, is exactly like every other cinematic nefarious higher-up.

Mae has a circle of doubters in her parents (Glenne Headley plays her mom), her Luddite friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane of “Boyhood”) and a mysterious co-worker (an underused John Boyega). You can see her registering the creepiness of mantras like “sharing is caring,” but she’s turned to the dark side after a near-drowning incident where she’s saved by Bailey’s spyware.

Soon she’s spouting sayings like “secrets are lies,” volunteering to “go fully transparent,” wearing a camera 24/7 to demonstrate that humans are at their best when watched and recklessly demonstrating a new tool to find people who don’t want to be found.

Watson’s not the right fit for this role, though. Maybe it’s her Hermione past, but she radiates too much intelligence to make you believe she’d buy this facile sub-Orwellian shtick.

Our gradual, voluntary loss of privacy is ripe for dramatization, but this movie arrives when people are actually backing up from social media. As a warning about the bad things that can happen when we grow lazy about our liberties, “The Circle” is unfortunately up against “The Handmaid’s Tale” — a much more topical nightmare for our uneasy age. This one’s more like The Square.

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and Patton Oswalt in "The Circle."

The Circle review: a toothless, bland satire of a Google fantasy dystopia

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. We’re currently reporting from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

One of the most fundamental problems with Dave Eggers’ future-thriller novel The Circle is that its protagonist, Mae Holland, is a cipher. Eggers’ book has a satirical agenda: his future society, where a Google-esque tech company attempts to eradicate privacy, is an extension of the current social media landscape, where people voluntarily document and publicize even the most mundane aspects of their lives. But its central character isn’t a person so much as a plot function, a mouthpiece who forwards Eggers’ agenda without developing a personality that would explain it.

That problem extends into the film adaptation, a stripped-down, unemphatic version of the story that streamlines the book’s plot and alters the ending, but nonetheless preserves many of its biggest faults. In theory, having real human faces attached to some of The Circle’s more unlikely statements and beliefs should humanize the story, making it more grounded and real, and raising the stakes. In practice, the film version feels even more disconnected from reality than the book. Where the book feels deliberately arch, the film just feels vague and out of touch. The modern technological tug-of-war between privacy and security is a real and significant issue. The version of that conflict in the film version of The Circle is bland, neutered, and cartoony.

Black Mirror-esque dystopian drama.

Mae (Harry Potter and Beauty and the Beast star Emma Watson), an impressionable young woman in a dead-end cubicle job, gets hired as a customer service rep at The Circle, an immense Google-like company with seemingly utopian, progressive ideas about how technology can drive human connection. But those ideas rapidly morph into 1984-worthy slogans, with a philosophy to match. “Secrets are lies” is literally painted on the walls at The Circle’s sunny, modern glass-and-steel campus. “Privacy is theft” becomes another Circle rubric, with the idea being that it’s selfish and withholding for people to enjoy things without sharing them with others, either in person, via online sharing, or by taking along a live-streaming drone.

Initially, Mae struggles with The Circle’s culty culture, like the mandatory, heavily monitored social media participation. But when the company’s generous medical benefits make life easier for her parents (Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton) — especially her dad, who has MS — she starts to buy into the cult, then represent it worldwide. She gets some early warnings of impending catastrophe from a soft-spoken Circle employee (The Force Awakens’ John Boyega) who perpetually seems to be hanging around texting. But her avuncular bosses (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt) keep pushing her toward new ways to support The Circle by destroying personal privacy and personal choice.

Like so many great science fiction stories, it’s a warning about a possible future, about how if present cultural trends are extended in a certain direction, they could morph into something more ominous. Like so many lousy science fiction stories, though, it’s also about how the world might go wrong if people were cartoonish, one-dimensional imbeciles.

Director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) co-scripted the film adaptation of The Circle with Eggers, and one of their major changes was to limit the story’s scope considerably — to drop back from showing anything significant about how The Circle’s initiatives are changing the world. This was an immense mistake. The film feels like it takes place in a disconnected thought-experiment fantasy space. None of what the company does necessarily matters outside its campus, except to Mae’s parents and her halfheartedly sketched childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, star of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood). When Mae suggests that people should be legally required to use Circle services in ways that would permanently change democracy and citizenship, it’s meant to be a huge step toward dystopic horror. Instead, the idea feels delusional, because the film has made no effort to explore what kind of power the organization actually has in the world, and there’s no reason to believe that Mae’s suggestions could lead anywhere.

And “the film has made no effort” applies to just about everything within The Circle. So many of its ideas are thrown out haphazardly with no follow-up. Mercer isn’t a character so much as a handful of loosely associated scenes. Mae’s best friend and Circle sponsor Annie (Karen Gillan) goes from inner-circle power-player to disintegrating mess in a similarly abrupt scattering of moments. The Circle’s social media obsession is introduced in one dryly funny scene where a pair of employees alternately scold Mae for her low engagement rate, and remind her that all Circle social activity is strictly optional. But that aspect of the world never comes up again. Toward the end, it’s suggested that The Circle’s top leaders are hypocrites given over to capital-E Evil in some vague way, but their actual intentions are never established.

As a result, virtually none of The Circle has any emotional or narrative impact. Watson’s performance is placid and poreless, a collection of minimalist smiles and forehead-beetling frowns that do nothing to emphasize the story’s stakes. The threat here is abstract and notional: to paraphrase Mallory Ortberg’s memorable takedown of Black Mirror, “What if Google, but too much?” Hanks stands out tremendously as a Steve Jobs / Elon Musk figure — his particular brand of beaming warmth is easy to read as convincing to a crowd, yet fundamentally insincere — but his character is as flat and frictionless as all the others.

About the only thing in The Circle that feels real is the online response when Mae “goes transparent” by wearing a camera and streaming her life to millions of fans. Ponsoldt uses the increasingly common visual conceit of having people’s internet comments appear on-screen in a cloud of digital pop-ups, as viewers react to Mae’s every movement with judgments, support, leers, and narcissistic, attention-seeking non sequiturs about cheese. (Noticeably missing: people threatening to rape or murder her, or ordering her to kill herself. Apparently The Circle’s world is too transparent, or too mild-mannered, for trolls.) The flood of information, which Mae is expected to take in and respond to, is more relatable than anything else in the movie. But it’s still a vanilla-pudding version of the more intense scenario in the book.

Ultimately, The Circle is a riff on George Orwell’s 1984 where Big Brother is the online world at large — the internet’s endless demand for validation and response, the fear of missing out, the fear of not having a presence. But the threats are abstract, toothless, and frequently silly. The idea of people living solely to maximize their online fandom has been done before, and done better. Eggers’ book pushes past satire into dark farce, where the story’s hyperbole feels more like a gag than a coherent warning about the future. The film version doesn’t even feel pointed enough to be satire.

There’s a little traumatic violence and a split-second shot of a sexual act, but there’s no blood and little emotion associated with any of the proceedings. None of the emotions here connect in a way that seems like they might traumatize kids — or engage them. You could call it PG-13 for safety’s sake, except nothing here feels remotely unsafe.

The Circle opens in theaters on April 28th.

The Circle Is Not Your Scary Future, It's Your Boring Present

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.

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