The Circle is bolstered by a fascinating premise and solid performances, but doesn't bring anything new to the table in regard to its discussions.
Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is a young woman living in a small town stuck at a dead end job. Her parents are in a tight spot financially as they struggle to pay for medical treatments for Mae's father Vinnie (Bill Paxton) that insurance won't cover. Mae's fortunes change for the better when her friend Annie (Karen Gillian) lands her an interview with the technology powerhouse The Circle, a high-profile company whose goal is to improve the wellbeing of society through their continuous innovations that make just about all aspects of life connected to each other. Mae gets the job and begins work as a customer experience representative, acclimating herself to the utopia that is The Circle campus.
Shortly into her tenure at the company, Mae crosses paths with Ty (John Boyega), a fellow employee who has developed a rather cynical outlook of The Circle's overarching goals and objectives. He's concerned co-founders Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) are endangering humanity by eliminating people's privacy in favor of a more transparent world that's broadcast for everyone to see. Mae has to decide which side of the debate she falls on, as her career actions could greatly affect the lives of everyone she knows.
Based on the novel of the same name by David Eggers, The Circle is the latest entry in the sci-fi genre to take a hard look at our relationship with technology and what role it should play in our daily routines. It's a subject that's been featured in several films prior, but in the information age, the main themes have the potential to hold more relevance as an examination of the 21st century lifestyle. Director James Ponsoldt is working with an interesting concept here, but unfortunately never finds the best way to execute it. The Circle is bolstered by a fascinating premise and solid performances, but doesn't bring anything new to the table in regard to its discussions.
The script, co-written by Ponsoldt and Eggers, is very much a mixed bag. In the early going, they do a decent job of setting up Mae's plight to make her a sympathetic conduit for the audience (much credit goes to the late Paxton's turn there) and building the world of The Circle as the ultimate dream. In terms of direction, there's a nice (though obvious) visual contrast between Mae's dusty old hometown and the sprawling Google-esque headquarters of The Circle - which almost feels like a different universe. However, as the film goes on, it has very little to say about the issues it presents, never getting beyond the surface level. This makes the overall plot come across as dull and bland, since the topic of "private vs. public" is something that's been tackled many times before. Audiences might find the general idea of The Circle sounds better on-paper than on-screen.
Ponsoldt toys with the notion that The Circle is some kind of "big brother" operation riddled with ulterior motives as they place surveillance cameras all over the globe, but never really succeeds in getting that aspect across. There are only tiny hints scattered throughout, and nothing substantial. In a way, that subverts viewer expectations for a film like this, but there isn't any true kind of payoff. This unevenness can be contributed to Ty's characterization coming across as more paranoid than legitimately concerned, as audiences don't get to see specifically how The Circle morphed into something he never intended. A lot of the company's ideas are sold as ways to make things safer and more reliable - though at times their innovations can seem like a step too far. Still, the film appears to favor the pro-technology argument when it could have benefitted from a more balanced handling.
None of the performances are particularly groundbreaking, but Watson does a good job of anchoring the proceedings as a fish-out-of-water trope who gets swept up in all the possibilities of The Circle, playing Mae as a wide-eyed optimist enamored with her new path. The character's arc is a hard sell for viewers, as it feels rushed to make a sub-2-hour runtime, but that is more the fault of the screenplay than Watson. She is solid in the role and is a relatable protagonist. Unsurprisingly, Hanks is the real star of the show as Bailey. Though the Oscar-winner is in just a handful of scenes, he makes the most of his limited screen time, channeling the persona of Steve Jobs by way of his own natural charm. Even if the movie around him isn't up to par, Hanks is practically incapable of mailing it in and has arguably the most memorable part in the film.
With Watson carrying The Circle on her shoulders, much of the supporting cast around her is shortchanged. Boyega is given very little to do as Ty other than be the figurehead for voicing the perceived dangers of The Circle. Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mae's friend Mercer, fares even worse, as he's essentially a stock character designed to represent a simpler side of life that isn't always filtered through an electronic device. The role may have carried more weight if the relationship between Mercer and Mae was better developed, but as presented, it's unfortunately clichéd and barely registers. Paxton and Glenne Headly are essentially the heart of the picture as Mae's parents, providing an emotional through-line that's effective in its small doses. The two display everyman qualities that endears them to the viewer and even lends some credibility to certain decisions Mae makes.
In the end, The Circle had potential to be a compelling piece of social commentary, but doesn't quite work as a cautionary tale or a plausible goal for the immediate future. It simply goes through the motions without providing much to make it stand out from the crowd. The film's greatest weakness is that it speeds through the main narrative, when it needed some more room to breathe and fully develop the various aspects it tries to juggle. Fans of the source novel or those intrigued by the trailers may find some enjoyment out of it, but with the summer movie season right around the corner, casual viewers might be better off saving their money for something else.