The Circle is Broken: Video Review

THE CIRCLE  (2018)
Directed by James Ponsoldt
STX Films, 110 minutes, PG-13 (drugs, mild language, milder sex)

We often plot ideas—political viewpoints, for instance—on linear grids. It’s seldom that simple. Lots of things are more properly visualized as an inwardly bowed horseshoe in which there is a very small gap between the two poles. (If you live under tyranny, does it really matter if your rulers are on the right or on the left?) Utopia and dystopia are twins, one admirable the other monstrous. Each is a collective vision and each wrestles with the same fundamental questions: Whose vision shapes society? What values must members of that society hold? How much room/freedom exists for individuals to deviate from the norm?

The Circle is a film based upon the namesake (and far superior) Dave Eggers novel. It is set in the not-so-distant future when bright minds are at work on plans to unify the world. Sounds good, yes? Ahh, but whose vision of unity? What is demanded of each person? How much autonomy do individuals possess? It’s one of the worst kept secrets of recent years that The Circle is a riff on the global clout of Google (with splashes of Amazon and Apple added for good measure).  It is said we live in the Information Age, but the mantra “knowledge is power” dates to Francis Bacon and the year 1597. Given, though, that we tout more education as the solution to most problems, wouldn't unleashing knowledge harbinger Utopia? The audacity of challenging that assumption is the best part of The Circle. Alas, this Circle is broken by weak acting, shoddy direction, and logic loopholes the size of Googleplex.

I mention Googleplex because Google’s Mountain View, California campus is clearly the model for The Circle grounds. Plus, there’s already a debate over whether it’s the coolest place on earth to work, or a cult run by geeks instead of religious hucksters. The movie zeroes in on Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a twenty-something whose life is a shambles. She works at a soul-sucking call center, drives a rattletrap car, and fends off suitor Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), the kind of guy she’d like to have—as a big brother. To make matters worse, her dad (Bill Paxton) has MS and her mom (Glenne Headley) is better at being an aging hippie than of offering direction for her foundering daughter. *  A big break comes when Mae's friend Annie (Karen Gillan) finagles her an interview at The Circle.

Here is where the big questions emerge. You probably know that when you’re online your every click is (or is potentially) monitored. Let’s take it a step further. What if a global corporation such as Google mined and refined everyone’s data? What if it could convince netizens that this is a good thing? “Secrets are lies,” proclaims Circle front man Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). What if you were convinced that total transparency could eliminate crime, feed the planet, protect the environment, keep you connected to everyone else, and maybe even abolish poverty? What if you worked at a place that was half the proverbial good fight and half theme park? Would you give up your privacy, work ridiculously long hours, immerse yourself into company culture, and grant unfettered access to your personal, financial, and health data?    

Good questions, but things quickly unravel—in the film, that is. It starts with ham-handed direction from Ponsoldt. Look up the tactics of cults in a Sociology 101 textbook and that’s about as deep as Ponsoldt’s analysis gets—another way of saying the film lacks nuance. One risible scene has Mae and Annie walking across the company grounds, when Mae casually asks, “Is that Beck?” That’s the entire set-up for a gratuitous cameo concert clip that has nothing to do with anything else. Poor direction generally begets second-rate performances. With the exception of Hanks, who is very good even when he’s essentially channeling Steve Jobs, most of the actors are so stiff you suspect somebody stuck poles up their butts. This is especially the case with Watson, who at this stage of her career is simply not a very good actress. In Dave Eggers’ novel, Mae is slowly sucked into The Circle vortex; with Watson’s Mae we can’t tell if she slips or connives, but she’s not convincing either way. There are so many logic flaws in the script that we long for someone to tell Ponsoldt that the programming world consists of zeroes and ones. In fact, the entire resolution rests on the unexplained question of how a Circle creator-turned-rogue is allowed to roam HQ untracked.  

Hanks nearly redeems the film, and it’s surely worth discussing the inherent dangers of social media in a world in which it’s increasingly easy to, in Noam Chomsky’s poignant phrase, manufacture consent. We should be vigilant of all tyrants, as it doesn’t matter if Orwell’s Big Brother arises as a political power grabber or as an unscrupulous global multicorp. I’m pretty sure, though, that the Age of Paranoia is not the antidote to the Age of Information unbridled.

Rob Weir  

* Sadly, both Paxton and Headley died in 2017 shortly after this film was completed.

No comments: