This week’s big release had just about everything going for it. As far as grown-up thrillers go, how could you ask for more than Tom Hanks playing a sinister executive of a Facebook-esque company trying to snake its way into every aspect of your life. Timely, and with a great supporting cast including Patton Oswalt, the late, great Bill Paxton, John Boyega, and co-starring Emma Watson. It looks great, and even has literary pedigree. It was adapted by Dave Eggers from his own story. So why didn’t I like it more? Mostly because “The Circle” gets so wrapped up in what could be, that it forgets what it is.
Emma Watson is Mae, just another millennial trapped in a dead-end job answering the phone for customer service. Her parents don’t have much money, and her father’s ever worsening Multiple Sclerosis is weighing on the entire family. Mae is at her wits end when she gets a call from an old friend who’s really made something of herself. Annie works for The Circle, a social media mega-company that, like Google, projects itself as the ultimate place to work, live, and change the world. Annie has gotten Mae an interview, and if she gets the job, it will change her life forever. Spoiler alert – she gets the job and is thrust into the whirlwind that is The Circle. She is told that her social life is equally important to the company as her work. She is acting as customer service here, as well, but now her job performance is judged based on the number of likes she gets from the customers she assists. Her attendance at company events is not “mandatory,” but really, it is. The Circle is all consuming, and the employees are devoted to it – a fact made all the clearer at a weekly Ted-Talk type gathering of employees where CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks) holds court. At this particular talk, Bailey introduces a new innovation from the circle – tiny, marble-sized cameras that can be discretely placed anywhere with ease. The cameras provide high-definition video and audio, as well as a number of other metrics wirelessly to satellites and then to the databases of The Circle. These cameras, we’re told, will soon be everywhere, shedding light on everything from surf conditions to the plight of refugees in war-torn areas. Knowing is good, Bailey tells us, but knowing everything is better. Mae may have a few reservations about the lengths The Circle will go to know all it can about its employees, but those worries are allayed when the company puts her parents on the company health plan, all but saving her father’s life. It’s when she meets John Boyega’s reclusive Ty, one of the company’s early stars, that some of the more sinister aspects of the company begin to be revealed. If only the movie ever capitalized on them.
The first half of “The Circle” is great. There’s tension, paranoia, creeping realizations, and Tom Hanks plays the best kind of bad guy – the one you don’t want to believe is bad because he’s so darn charming. As audience members, we are taken along with Mae on her journey. You look at The Circle and, intimidating and overwhelming as it is, you too want to work there. Eamon Bailey seems like a great boss so, like Mae, you try to discount the alarm bells going off in your head. And when Mae fully drinks the Kool-aid and goes fully “transparent,” agreeing to wear a camera 24-7, we are as fascinated as we are repelled. It’s only when things start to come to a head that the movie falters. Despite having a great set-up, “The Circle” never delivers on its promise. The thriller is never actually thrilling. There are tense moments, but even the shocking parts don’t fully gel, and the film takes a turn in the third act that is muddled and unclear, leaving us with an ending that is supposed to feel like a grand crescendo, but ends up being more of a confused shrug. Part of the problem is that, like a lot of pseudo-futuristic movies, “The Circle” tries to do too much, too fast. At one point it is suggested that maybe, just maybe all national elections around the world should be administered by The Circle as a part of their social media platform. Two scenes later we are told that there are already verbal agreements in place to do this in 22 countries. Wow. That was easy. I guess if you have Tom Hanks in your corner, things just get done. Conversely, however, much of what “The Circle” warns of never really comes to fruition. Think of a movie like “The Firm,” the closest correlation I can think of. Hal Holbrook and Wilford Brimley are not fooling around in that movie. In “The Circle,” on the other hand, none of John Boyega’s dire warnings really amount to anything. In fact, I wasn’t sure what he was even doing in this movie. Ostensibly he was the one risking his life to sound the alarm – the guy who usually ends up dead, confirming the true evil hidden within. But here, Ty just sort of hangs around looking disaffected. He doesn’t like the direction The Circle is going, but like every other young person in the film, doesn’t seem willing to take any steps to stop it. And maybe that is the true theme of this film. Invasive technology and privacy shattering platforms are the norm today and rather than fight them, it seems like this generation is embracing the idea with open arms. Mae’s story doesn’t end in a way that was satisfying to me, but I wonder how someone under thirty might see it. I’m sure someone has live-tweeted this film, so with a few clicks I’m sure I can find out. Grade: B-
“The Circle” is rated PG-13 for language and mature themes.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.