The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

Follow Us On:



Is Broken

Emma Watson
Emma Watson
STX Entertainment
 110 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks
The Circle

Few books have been as influential or as prescient as George Orwell’s 1984. If anything, the book’s themes of constant surveillance and the perils of groupthink are far more relevant in today’s technologically advanced social media society than when Orwell penned his work in the wake of World War II. A new movie, The Circle, attempts to expand on Orwell’s themes and is, at times, a paranoid conspiracy thriller similar to 1970’s films like The Parallax View. At other times, The Circle is a warning about the dangers of conformity and the lack of privacy, and, at still other times, the film is a parody of the at-times wonky technology world work culture. The problem with the movie is that it never seems to know in what direction it ultimately wants to go, causing its main character Mae Holland to bounce around like a pinball from scene to scene.


When the film starts, Mae (Emma Watson) is a marginally employed customer service representative, in debt up to her eyeballs. But her luck seemingly changes when a friend wrangles an interview for her at the Circle, a fictional high-tech company that seems a close cousin to Google. Although she has a similar type of job, her co-workers seem friendlier, the corporate benefits are great, and she loves the company’s founder and CEO, a folksy jovial sort named Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). Bailey gives his employees regular Friday pep talks where he often unveils new products like SeeChange, a miniature camera and transmitter that can be placed virtually anywhere and accessed by virtually anyone, thus allowing people unfettered access to nearly the entire world. SeeChange is very much in keeping with the company motto, “Knowing is good; knowing everything is better.”


Mae quickly buys into the corporate culture, adapting her work habits in search of getting the perfect customer satisfaction rating and increasingly sharing her thoughts and activities with her fellow “circlers.” Eventually, she agrees to “go transparent” and record and uphold her entire life, 24 hours a day. That development does not sit too well with Mae’s would-be boyfriend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) and leads to their break-up and Mercer’s attempt to go into hiding. Nor does it sit well with Mae’s friend Annie (Karen Gillan), who got Mae her initial interview but has since soured on the company. And, as the film progresses, Mae increasingly buys into the company rhetoric and willingly participates in promoting Bailey’s vision and products, even as the evidence mounts that the company is far from the benevolent idealistic enterprise it seems at first glance.


The Circle is based on the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers, whose previous rumination on our corporate culture, A Hologram for the King, was also made into a movie featuring Tom Hanks. The book was a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing a business too much information and destroying privacy in the process, while, at the same time, skewering the corporate counterculture evident in parts of Silicon Valley. It was a stern cautionary tale about the dangers of non-traditional corporate culture and very traditional information gathering. In the novel, Mae is rather a simple person, who completely accepts what the company higher-ups tell her (needless to say, the book doesn’t end well).


But what works for a novel does not necessarily work for a studio wide release starring one of the hottest young actresses around and having a veritable acting institution in a supporting role. So, the book’s bleak ending was changed to one more in keeping with the public perception of Emma Watson. The problem is that no one figured out how to make the ending work; indeed, no one figured out how to shoehorn all of Eggers’ themes from a 500-page novel into a two hour movie.


Of course, one never knows for sure just how and where things get lost between the printed page and screen. But Eggers wrote the screenplay for The Circle along with director John Ponsoldt, so the two of them have to shoulder the blame. The film spins its wheels for the middle third, with Mae vacillating between suspicion and acceptance, even as she plays detective, meeting Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), who is secretly the mystery co-founder of the company whose whereabouts are seemingly unknown. Lafitte shows Mae (and the viewers) the massive database that the company has compiled on the world’s populace.


With Mae (and, apparently, the screenwriters) uncertain about what to do, The Circle lurches badly from one plot thread to the next, never being consistent. Nor is the character of Mae the slightest bit believable. The audience is supposed to identify with her as the plucky underdog heroine, but, by the film’s end, she appears a complete ditz, who changes her mind and mood seemingly from scene to scene.


The issues that Eggers raised in his book still show up from time to time in the movie, and Ponsoldt has put together a few powerful scenes. Perhaps the best scene in the film occurs when Mae unleashes the power of the Circle’s database and spy devices to track down a murderer who had evaded police for years, but is nonetheless found and captured in ten minutes. Everyone is well aware in the abstract of the information-gathering capabilities our technological infrastructure has at its disposal, but the demonstration in the movie is still chilling in its implications, especially when Bailey next turns his attention to locating Mercer, who has tried to get away from it all in a remote cabin in the woods.


Although some scenes work, many others (including the new, feel-good finale) are too obvious and blatant, bordering on outright silliness. Emma Watson is hopelessly out of her depth here, given a character that’s almost impossible to play consistently. As a result, Mae is little more than a pretty face story device. Tom Hanks fares considerably better; he lays the typical Hanks charm on thick here and only occasionally, and usually slightly, lets the more sinister side of his personality show itself.


What is most frustrating about The Circle is how close it is to being a really good and truly meaningful movie. The film had the potential of being the 21st century version of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. But Coppola’s film had one thing that The Circle completely lacks, a consistent vision. Instead Ponsoldt and Eggers seem intent on throwing everything they can think of against a wall in the hopes that some of it will stick. Some of it does work, but, for the most part, this particular Circle is far from unbroken.

In this scene, Tom Hanks explains his latest innovation to his employees, including Emma Watson.

Read other reviews of The Circle:


The Circle (2017) on IMDb