"All Seeing," proclaims the advertisement about the company's newest form of camera surveillance, and we've already heard its creator say that knowing all is the ideal state of human intellect. We don't see the entirety of the ad, which plays on a giant screen behind the man who makes the latter proclamation, but we should be able to guess that "All Knowing" comes next in that advertisement. If we have any memory of biblical concepts, we should be able to put together what the third item on the list might be. The Circle wants to be about the delusions of grandeur that might lead the creator of the company at the film's center to want a camera that is all-seeing, all-knowing, and that third thing. It also wants to be about the dangers of intrusive social media and about the warring needs of private and public lives.
The film, an adaptation of the novel that shares its name by Dave Eggers, is an ambitious but not particularly graceful one when asked to handle all of these thematic threads. The problem here isn't its bluntness. We expect bluntness in an allegory as forthright as this one. The problem is that the sell-by date has passed. We've gotten the point for some time, through our own or others' messed-up experience, that social media have a dark side. The film wants to be blackly funny and gravely pointed simultaneously, often in the same scene, to the point that a crucial one falls flat because it seems so predictably trivial in our current social stratosphere: Mae (Emma Watson), the young woman who acts as our protagonist, has left her dead-end job to join The Circle, the company in question, but has not had time to sign up for the social platform feature of the company's interface.
The pair of employees inquiring about why she hasn't are so knowledgable about the details of her life that it's a wonder she's been charged with opening a social account online at this company, but the point that the scene is trying to make falls far short of its goal, almost entirely by accident. The reason is that this no longer seems all that surprising. Companies have taken to incorporating social media since the novel's publication, either in the basics of the jobs they offer or in the criteria used to fire employees, and we are already aware of the kind of knowledge that can provide. Perhaps the surprising thing here is that no one truly questions the increasingly fascistic methods of The Circle, its CEO Bailey (Tom Hanks in a clever, against-type role), or its COO Stenton (Patton Oswalt).
That's not entirely true: One employee questions the curious circumstances surrounding a U.S. Senator looking to sanction the company, and her character arc from then on is so insidious that one wishes the film was about her. Instead, we're treated to the minutiae of Mae's home life, which includes living with her parents (played by Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton) and enjoying a friendship that borders on flirtation with childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). Another friend, the tireless Annie (Karen Gillan), gets her the interview with The Circle, and from there, Mae enjoys a random surge in popularity when she almost dies and subsequently becomes the face of the company's various innovations. She meets Ty (John Boyega), the creator of many of The Circle's apps, who generally is here to loom in the background until his purpose is fulfilled off-screen.
That fulfillment would be part of the climax, which would only seem to care about the comeuppance of a makeshift villain and the resolution of the main plot, but director James Ponsoldt (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers) doesn't seem entirely certain of how much he cares about that resolution. One character dies under ludicrous and entirely avoidable circumstances, leading to a tidy clean-up and the end credits, with the exception of a final shot that is completely and unclassifiably nonsensical. It's seemingly a reversal of attitude regarding everything we've learned and calls into question the intelligence of one of the central characters. That's the final nail in the coffin for The Circle, a well-made but oddly trivial dramatic thriller that avoids prescience through sheer obviousness.
Emma Watson (Mae), Tom Hanks (Bailey), Karen Gillan (Annie), Glenne Headly (Bonnie), Bill Paxton (Vinnie), John Boyega (Ty), Patton Oswalt (Stenton), Ellar Coltrane (Mercer).
Directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on the novel by Eggers.
Rated PG-13 (a sexual situation, brief language, thematic elements including drug use).
Released on April 28, 2017.