As Emma Watson drives up to the campus of The Circle, the fictional, Google-like, Silicon Valley tech giant in James Ponsoldt’s film of the same name, the exterior is a massive, circular stone wall stretching to infinity on an island unto itself. It looks like a fascist fortress straight out of “The Hunger Games.” Even though the interior is a sort of millennial utopia, it’s not a stretch to ask, “I wonder if these guys turn out to be evil?”
“The Circle,” based on Dave Eggers’s novel, takes aim at the consequences of an overly connected, internet-obsessed digital culture. And like any movie warning of the dangers of technology, it can’t help but be cheesy. When every Bourne and Bond and HBO sitcom has taken on Big Brother, “The Circle” already looks a bit outdated.
Watson however has the idealism and innocent demeanor in her performance that actually makes you believe and embrace the Silicon Valley ideology. In Watson’s real life, she’s grown to resist taking photographs with fans and values her privacy. So she’s interesting casting as Mae, a girl who starts out as a “guppy” in a massive pond, only to become someone who broadcasts her every waking moment to the world.
Mae wins her dream job at The Circle, but she starts to raise an eyebrow to the obsessive, almost cult mentality that defines the corporate culture. A secretive high-up at the company (John Boyega) makes her question the surveillance and data collecting of The Circle’s benevolent, Steve Jobs-like leader (Tom Hanks in full dad mode). But before long Mae goes fully “transparent” and becomes in service to The Circle’s all-seeing mentality.
In Mae’s customer service role and even in extracurricular activities, she’s graded on a 100-point scale with an expectation of perfection. In weekly, company-wide seminars that resemble TED Talks, her co-workers all parrot inane slogans like “Sharing is caring.” And oversharing of every hobby, activity and health function is not only common, but also expected.
Possibly the film’s most disturbing and awkward scene comes when two of Mae’s supervisors ask why she hasn’t been more active on social media. Their demeanor beams politeness, and yet they know of her dad’s medical problems, they casually peer pressure her to join clubs and support groups, and weave enough positive buzzwords to make her feel guilty for straying from campus.
At this point you may wonder, what exactly does The Circle do? Their latest innovation is palm-sized, virtually invisible cameras that provide real-time HD video and analytics. What could possibly go wrong with surveillance literally everywhere? A congressman wants to break up The Circle’s monopoly? Let’s just circumvent (get it?) them! They don’t get the great work we’re doing here.
But for as corny as it seems, Ponsoldt and Eggers’s screenplay doesn’t wag its finger at all the tech overreach. It raises questions, but Watson’s performance radiates goodness and innocence. When she speaks about the good The Circle can do, you believe her.
In fact her performance kicks into gear right as the film starts to get interesting. Midway through, Mae’s life is saved as a result of The Circle’s cameras. But it’s not just the camera’s availability, but the belief that knowing she’s being watched helps make her a better person. She agrees to go “fully transparent” and be the first person to broadcast every aspect of her life. Watson flips on an internal performance within her role. She narrates and poses as a figurehead of perfection and demonstrating her best self.
This second act shift works in “The Circle’s” favor on an aesthetic level as well. Ponsoldt’s camera at first seemed to tap into a fairly new cliché, that being “The Circle” has a “Silicon Valley gloss.” The camera glides aimlessly, everything is clean and sunny and pop-up chat bubbles of text messages are everywhere. It looks like the slickest corporate video you’ll see. But when Mae goes transparent and these pop-ups follow her into the bathroom as she brushes her teeth, we start to question the barrage of noise.
Rather than just a film warning about technology’s influence, “The Circle’s” second half thoughtfully shows how good intentions and ideas can still corrupt. A great example of those consequences follow Mercer (Ellar Coltrane of “Boyhood”). He’s a would-be love interest for Mae, but he likes to stay off the grid. When Mae posts his homemade antler chandeliers on her Circle page, he becomes a mini-celebrity and the subject of scorn from people who think he murders deer to make his art.
What’s missing are the Internet trolls, the vicious, hateful side of the internet that would almost certainly follow an instant female celeb like Mae, and has already followed Watson IRL. Ponsoldt and Eggers’s screenplay goes to neat places but not to that dark underbelly, and not even to the degree that Eggers’s own novel plunges.
“I knew when I first saw you that she doesn’t have a cynical bone in her body,” Boyega’s character says about Mae. Watson’s performance is that way, and ultimately, she’s the piece that makes this film come full circle.