Sloppy writing hamstrings an all-star cast, reducing a mid-tier Black Mirror episode to a lower-tier Black Mirror episode.
Knowing is good. But knowing everything is better.
“Are we alone?”
That’s the question posed to Mae Holland (Emma Watson) by her best friend Annie (Karen Gillan), and the significance is fraught. Partially because they work for a monolithic tech & social media company called The Circle — part Google, part Apple, part Facebook, 98% insufferable twenty-somethings — that has increasingly ramped up internal surveillance, placing eyeball-sized cameras in every nook and cranny in the name of Safety.
The rest is Mae’s own fault, having volunteered to go “fully transparent,” a publicity stunt to turn her daily life into The Truman Show with a constant feedback loop from her millions of bored subscribers. “Secrets are lies” is the new mantra, first delivered by Mae herself at one of the company’s “Dream Fridays,” where the zipper-fleeced, jocular visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) one-more-thing’d The Circle’s new privacy-smashing initiative, the too-cute-by-half “SeeChange.” You see, if everyone were constantly being watched, they wouldn’t do bad things. And look how much fun Mae is having!
If this sounds insane, that’s by design, and it wouldn’t be out of place within Charlie Brooker’s “technology is perilous” series Black Mirror. There are a lot of important, intriguing ideas brewing in The Circle. Unfortunately the film proves to be far less than the sum of its A-list parts, thanks to sloppy characterization and the tonal goulash created by director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), who co-wrote the adaptation alongside original novelist Dave Eggers. I’m a fan of Eggers’ writing, though I confess I never read The Circle. That puts me in a position of evaluating a film that feels like every other scene was deleted without having a clue as to what’s missing.
It starts with the characters, who are laughably devoid of interior life, or consistency from scene to scene. The worst offender is Mae herself; she begins the film excited about landing an entry-level job at The Circle, where she starts out responsible for customer satisfaction. But though she’s supposed to be our eyes into this world, the “guppy” simultaneously awestruck and perplexed by the scope of the campus (they have dog yoga and Beck concerts, just because!), she morphs into an ideologue almost overnight. Is she a wunderkind, in over her head, or being manipulated? Where is she getting her ideas from, and why is she consistently in a position to implement them? These aren’t mysteries to be solved, but questions I still have after watching the film.
The Circle doesn’t seem to know whether Mae is even a good person, because everything we do know about her comes from what characters say about her: “I knew you didn’t have a cynical bone in your body,” says Ty (John Boyega), who she meet-cutes despite him spending the bulk of the film silently brooding in corners and behind trees. Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, the Boy from Boyhood), who makes chandeliers out of antlers and aspires to the Swansonian ideal of living off the grid, reminds her of how much she loves adventure, when all we ever see her do is half-heartedly kayak a few yards into San Francisco Bay.
This all makes Mae a vehicle for the plot’s increasingly melodramatic machinations, but whether she’s trapped in a situation spiraling out of control or is simply the embodiment of the insipid, over-sharing Millennial isn’t clear. Its most effective scene comes early on, when a pair of Circlers insist that Mae sign up for a battery of extracurricular programs — don’t call it “Mandatory Fun” — and post about it to her TrueYou page, because if you don’t post about it, it’s like it didn’t happen, and that doesn’t help build community. That hits close to home, when many in our world can’t let a breakfast go by without turning it into a bit of performative virtue signaling.
If the film had stayed in that vein, it would have still felt overly familiar, but at least its message would have been relevant and clear. Instead, it takes a hard right turn into the privacy debate without ever articulating an actual point of view. The film’s ending (spoilery, but screw it) pulls its punch, setting Mae up as revolutionary figurehead before making the weirdest possible choice at the last possible moment. That’s on Ms. Watson, too, wobbly accent aside — if The Circle was supposed to be her chance to finally go “dark,” she doesn’t have the presence to take it, and Ponsoldt doesn’t really let her. Mae’s ideas are alarmingly bad, but they’re staged and lit like she’s the second coming of Zuckerberg; just weeks ago, she was a cubicle drone who rarely updated her social media account. If there was a cut scene where we learned Hanks was controlling her with his mind, it would actually make more sense.
Speaking of Dark Hanks — he works. He’s the best part of this thing, coasting on his charm as America’s Dad to keep his army of social media-savvy employees wrapped around his finger with each new product announcement. Patton Oswalt is surprisingly convincing as Hanks’ lieutenant, hinting at darkness without it ever coming fully to the surface. But they and the rest of the supporting cast (including Bill Paxton as Mae’s father, suffering from MS; it’s heartbreaking to see him so frail in one of his final roles) get shortchanged so Ponsoldt can give us more closeups of Watson’s perfect, overactive face. He doesn’t bring much to the table as far as style, either, except for a flurry of on-screen notifications that are now par for the course (it was barely novel when Sherlock was pinging text messages), but provide a depressingly accurate window into your standard internet comment thread.
Here’s what I want to say about the film’s muddled message, though: technology is a tool. The existence of a camera or social network (or Social Network) isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s all in how we choose to use it. That’s what Black Mirror does so well in its best episodes (see “The Entire History of You”): its characters act how real humans would act, making ethically-charged decisions around what is meant to be a neutral product or service. Everything humans have ever made can be both used and abused. It’s what we do; it’s who we are.
And yet, I can’t think of any recent film where a fictional tech company didn’t have a nefarious agenda. From Parks and Recreation to Jason Bourne, these conglomerates are stocked with buzzword-slinging, pseudo-liberal bros who want to bring everybody together, man, but inevitably compromise that idealism to turn a profit. Why does The Circle want to collect data on the behavior and health of every living soul? We never find out, but we are meant to take one character at his word that they want to, and that should be alarming enough. Rather than a mystery wrapped in an enigma, its core is as vapid and ephemeral as a Snapchat about your morning coffee.
While there’s something to be said for any story that breaches the battle lines of Privacy vs. Security — indeed, some of us can’t be warned enough about the pitfalls of living “transparently” — The Circle’s vision of our near-future was written back in 2013, the same year as the Edward Snowden leaks. Our ideas about what’s worth sharing and collecting have evolved in just that time, and maybe it’s my own naiveté, but it’s hard for me to imagine a world where a company could initiate its own Big Brother system in full public view and it not be greeted by universal panic. The hundreds of employees at The Circle have all drunk the kool-aid, mindlessly “oooh”-ing and applauding through these presentations in unison. Maybe Hanks is controlling them, too. Again, that would have been more interesting.