The Circle wants very much for you to watch it and think of Microsoft. Or Facebook or Apple when Steve Jobs was still alive. Or any of the other contemporary technology leaders. The film spends a good deal of its time detailing the Circle campus and the utopian openness of life there where the possibilities, particularly in contrast to Emma Watsons cubicle job at a call centre, are made to seem endless. Tom Hanks gives inspiring speeches about the promise afforded by the perpetual surveillance society. However, underneath this you can see all is not well in utopia from The Stepford Wives (1975)-like portrayal of the two unnerving assistants who come to ask why Emma Watson hasnt participated in the social network yet but of course doing so is entirely her own choice, or how during an argument between her and Ellar Coltrane in the foyer employees stand around and film the conversation with their tablets. Or John Boyega who serves no real purpose in the film than to act as the crazy old conspiracy theorist who takes the hero aside to offer warnings I kept flashing back to Martin Landau in The X Files (1998) during all of Boyegas scenes. Even more so, Ellar Coltranes character serves no other point in the film than to represent a Luddhite point-of-view and constantly remind Emma Watson that there exists a life outside of social media. That and the tragic end he meets in the middle of the film, which serves to make a big moment where Emma Watson abruptly pulls back and thinks OMG, maybe online surveillance could be a bad thing.
The Circle has been intended as a big red neon warning about the dangers of online surveillance. This is one of the great social concerns of the 2010s how personal data of your online interactions is mined and sold by companies such as Google and Facebook; how (an issue that the film neatly avoids any mention of) every single email and phone message you make is scooped up and intercepted by the NSA, while most other governments of the world and now even routine police departments have followed suit. The Circle disingenuously avoids any of the wider political discussion and simply keeps its discussion to a fictionalised perpetually-on videocamera system and socially connected network that can locate people anywhere in minutes. It makes a reasonable if passable point at the end who has oversight over the watchers? which Emma Watson solves by uploading every email and online document that The Circle founders have made. (In reality, Julian Assange did not dissimilar thing with Wikileaks but rather than be regarded as the hero that Emma Watson is has been regarded as a dangerous seditionist and has been in enforced detention the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012).
Crucially, while the films big argument is that perpetual online surveillance is a bad thing, it never offers any particular argument as to why, excepting that it is conducted by companies without oversight. The only other argument it seems to make against surveillance seems to be well if people pursue others with drones and cameras, it might cause them to drive over a bridge, which could be considered the archetypal example of a straw argument. The film also seems oblivious to the idea that people might actually not want to have every aspect of their lives, their secrets, their fetishes etc, broadcast online for instance, would someone who is in the closet with an ultra-conservative family background really want to have every detail of their life broadcast online? Would those in the fetish community want their private lives broadcast to work colleagues, knowing they could lose their jobs? Even more crucially, while much of the film seems set up to suggest that too much surveillance and online interaction is a bad thing, it has no suggestions for what people might do to replace it. Indeed, the end of the film with Emma Watson back in her kayak being surrounded by drones and the pullback to show her image surrounded by a myriad of others on tv monitors, is a point where the film seems to arrive at a resigned shrug that says oh well, I guess we might as well accept that this is life now.
In reality, there is much about The Circle and its attempt to make a big point that seems to exist in a bubble removed from reality. For one, the film seems unaware that there have been people that have allowed their entire lives to be broadcast to the internet (what are called lifecasters) ever since Steve Mann in 1994 and the mass attention enjoyed by Jennifer Ringley in 1996. By contrast, the film treats this as a phenomenon that is happening for the first time and has Emma Watsons life followed by the entire world. The other amusing thing about her fan following is how everyone seems so nice in reality, thered be people calling her an idiot for some decision she made, slamming her for real or imagined political opinions, and others going I want to see her get her tits out. We are also shown how the social network is harnessed to find a fugitive from justice but what never seems to occur to Eggers is how this would automatically turn into online vigilanitism with people enacting their own witch hunts and mob justice on dubious evidence as was the real-life case in the aftermath of the Boston Bombing or people such as Justine Sacco whose life was ruined after a single bad taste tweet. Equally, Id like to see any real world setting where governments were willing to turn over voting to a private corporation and mandate it be tied to a social media account without there being a massive outcry or protest over the natural question of what would happen to the sixty percent of the world who are not connected to the internet how would such a system, for example, be subject to something like a recount?
The Circle reminds of films such as WarGames (1983), Hackers (1995), The Net (1995) and Antitrust (2001) and to a lesser extent Sneakers (1992). These were films that sought to be cutting edge for the time they were made in tackling big issues about the internet couched in the form of a thriller. The Circle wants to be a thriller but never actually constructs any of itself in thriller mode. Like all of these others, it serves less as a potent warning of the future than in hindsight becomes serves more as a dated work illuminating the technological anxieties of the age.
Among the cast, Emma Watson is serviceable. Her American accent is variable but without too many glaring errors. I am yet to be convinced she has the skill to be a major actress as opposed to one who is merely riding the crest of the wave from the Harry Potter films. Tom Hanks presents charisma with effortless ease in his scenes on screen. Perhaps the saddest aspect of watching the film is seeing Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly as Emma Watsons parents and knowing that both had died by the time one came around to watching the film (Paxton two months before the film came out, Headly two weeks after it went into general release).