The Circle; 110 min; Rated PG-13
“The Circle” could have been a deep dive into a reality that we are living through. Think of it as a global experiment in human connectivity: small, ubiquitous screens embedded in our daily lives. As well, millions willingly, happily, post the most intimate details of their lives on social media with the unabashed hope that they will be viewed not only by friends, but by strangers. And if these anonymous observers like what they see, if the posts in some way resonate, the person will be “friended.”
The abandonment of privacy in both large and small increments has become embedded in our culture (it was once done in old-timey tell-all books by famous people) and is now, in some strange way, compulsively available and compelling.
There is also the assessment by researchers that every time we check our smart phone it releases a hit of epinephrine that keeps users returning again and again, searching for that brief moment brought on by the connection.
Of course, it can be argued that this express train of technology, to include ear buds and iPads and apps, not to forget Twitter, used on perpetually updated phones are mere tools that are life-enhancing. It’s a utopian view, the equivalent of Gutenberg’s printing press, when knowledge went international and was a precursor to the Enlightenment. But there is a dark, dystopian side to this electronic experiment that involves control and an absence of solitude as well as a loss of privacy and even chosen isolation.
Which brings us to “The Circle,” which is not a particularly good film. But it could have been. Actually, it’s a bit of a mess. While its surface is slick (the setting has the ambience of a mega Silicon Valley campus), the company amenity-laden (yoga, rock climbing, social events, open lunches), and the employees seemingly perpetually happy, it is therefore hard for the new hire, Mae (Emma Watson), to peer beneath the surface. The expectation is that she should be delighted with being asked to work for The Circle, even at an entry-level job referred to as Customer Experience. Her goal, she’s told, is that all of her subscribers are 100 percent pleased with the services of The Circle.
She eventually meets the company’s chairman, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), and his lieutenant Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). From the outset, Mae is mesmerized by Bailey’s ritual Friday Ted-like-talks. At her first such gathering, Bailey introduces their latest technology: a camera the size of a marble that can be placed anywhere and everywhere and will be a tool for social justice. When privacy disappears, full accountability will take its place. The goal is full transparency. “Privacy is theft,” and “Secrets are lies.”
But let me reiterate: This movie is a disappointment, and it never allows Mae the opportunity to fully explore her hesitation at being hired not to just do a job but to become a part of an experience that she doesn’t feel she can opt out of, sensing an underlying sinister quality that permeates everything but is never fully explored.
If there is inherent value in “The Circle,” it’s not as a film; rather it’s that the story poses questions that are inherent in the experience of watching it in its totality. Think of it as a cautionary tale.
How far along are we toward reaching that critical mass known as connectivity? And will those, like Mae’s Luddite friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), be viewed with suspicion for choosing to exist outside of The Circle? Mae eventually answers for herself that rhetorical question.