When Mae (Emma Watson) gets a chance to work at The Circle, a fictional tech behemoth, she's so thrilled at the thought of ditching her soul-deadening customer-service job that she can barely fake the chill required to ace the interview, which evokes Google's infamously unconventional and challenging questions. Mae's starry-eyed enthusiasm rhymes with the voyeuristic thrill The Circle gives its audience: a glimpse behind the curtain of a fictional version of one of those companies that collect so much information about us while they simultaneously retain a stubborn sense of mystery about how they operate. Complete with petanque pits and a professional-quality stage where hot bands play at parties that extend well into the night, The Circle's campus might be the glossy love child of a billionaire's private island and the world's best endowed and most exclusive college.
All that carefully curated “fun,” however, is engineered not just to attract bright, energetic young people, but to keep them there as long as possible. The Circle wants its employees to give up all other attachments and interests, erase the distinction between work and time off, and post all their activities on The Circle-curated pages, allowing the company to capture and capitalize on reams of their personal data. Mae takes a while to catch onto that core truth, but James Ponsoldt's film makes it clear from the start. When charismatic CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) delivers his weekly orations, the camera cuts frequently to the rapt faces of the employees packed into the auditorium, absorbing his Orwellian slogans like sponges and laughing eagerly at every studiedly casual reference to his personal life. It's a promising setup, but it soon fizzles out as the film, having used all its ammo on those relatively easy targets, leaves bigger issues about how companies like The Circle are affecting our lives largely unexplored.
The Circle, co-adapted by Dave Eggers from his own novel, is full of characters who were all too obviously created just to score points, often in situations that shoulder their way past social satire to enter the purple realm of unconvincing melodrama. Ellar Coltrane, who demonstrated his ability to portray pretty much any emotion imaginable in Boyhood, is trapped here in the amber of crunchy-granola authenticity as Mae's friend Mercer. His few and brief appearances soon feel tiresomely repetitive, always involving either visiting Mae's parents—which he does more than she does—or warning Mae about the dangers of trading her social life for social media. His final scene feels both overwrought and over-determined, since his character has been too thinly developed to earn the emotional investment the scene is straining for. Read the rest in Slant Magazine