The Circle should have been the Dr. Strangelove of the millennium, confronting how we learned to stop worrying and love digital technology and dystopia, too.
Dystopian movies are not simply a form of entertainment; it’s a genre devoted to making viewers feel smart — about anticipating catastrophe and being above disaster. As the ultimate fulfillment of science-fiction readers’ fantasies (without readers having to suffer society’s breakdown themselves), dystopian movies rely on and stir up political cynicism. Viewers are encouraged to contradict their own desires and indulge their own fears — acting out the same ambivalence they feel about the new technology that makes access and power easy while simultaneously robbing us of our privacy and decency. Dystopian movies make audiences feel savvy through their willing descent into technological madness.
That’s the point of The Circle, in which Silicon Valley plebe Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a typically rootless, unambitious Millennial, gets seduced by the forever-undergrad lifestyle and fancy gadgets of Circle, her new employer, a corporate digital giant that strongly resembles Apple, Google, Facebook, etc.
Adventures at Circle should be comical. Dave Eggers, author of the 2013 novel on which the movie is based, has such a canny grasp of hipster-class pretenses that Mae’s indoctrination at Circle seems to be the set-up for satire.
When asked during her Circle job interview to choose between “the needs of the society” and “the needs of the individual,” Mae answers, “They should be the same.” So she’s already been subjected to Millennial brainwashing that aligns corporate dogma with “human rights.” The company’s work force, known as “Circlers,” chant “sharing is caring” in a group mantra. (They recall the “he will not divide us” zombies at Shia LaBeouf’s preposterous Museum of the Moving Image stunt.)
Yet Eggers and his screenplay collaborator, director James Ponsoldt, shift Mae’s introduction into the Brave New World of tech away from comedy and toward a cautionary tale. All that dystopian business is scarier than it is funny, so they try to have it both ways in a plot that conveys the new progressivism while also questioning it. Coworkers who describe Mae as “a fully knowable person of unlimited potential” also invade her family life, with catastrophic results. Unfortunately, Mae awakens to Circle’s usurpation of individuality as slowly and awkwardly as Eggers and Ponsoldt balance wit and fear, dystopia and hope.
Ponsoldt ineptly combines future-is-now slickness (a world of gleaming offices and hovering drones) and working-class nostalgia (Mae’s family and friends enjoy a lifestyle of hippie nostalgia). Spike Jonze might have been a better fit for Eggers’s ideas. Taking the next step of his chilly tech love story Her, Jonze might have provided a dweebish-cool embrace of Apple-era conformity with latent dread. Instead, The Circle’s thriller plot becomes clumsy and banal, and loses its potential ideological critique.
The Circle teeters between depicting robotic corporate behavior and the threat uncovered by Ty (John Boyega), creator of the TrueYou app, which allows Circle access to the private info of all its employees. In a weak, undeveloped romantic subplot, Ty enlists Mae to fight back, but there’s no frisson or suspense. Watson (Hermione of the Harry Potter movies) is still childlike; there is no sexual tension between her and the virile Boyega (Finn of Star Wars: The Force Awakens). And a tertiary subplot involving Mae’s artsy-craftsy childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane of Boyhood) suffers from amateurish acting. Coltrane’s Mercer seems backward rather than Old School; his tragic bullying by Circle’s mob looks like a Da Vinci Code chase scene.
Circle clones all instruct Mae by using liberal platitudes that, for the past eight years, have been mistaken for eloquent oratory.
Eggers and Ponsoldt can’t figure out how to go from dreading dystopia to deriding it, but The Circle has one point of fascination: Eggers successfully replicates progressive jargon. Circle clones all instruct Mae by using liberal platitudes — pandering to a specious sense of fairness and enlightenment — that, for the past eight years, have been mistaken for eloquent oratory. This Obamaspeak is perfectly parodied when Circle exec Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) delivers an orientation sermon: “I am a believer in the perfectibility of human beings. When we are our best selves, the possibilities are endless.” The blather is so close to Obama’s “more perfect union” inanities that in this context, it becomes the political mockery that mainstream entertainment has so carefully avoided.
Hanks’s speech is so transparently manipulative that is also reminds us of Hollywood’s recent mythification of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg; this equivalency with a messianic Obama becomes The Circle’s most enjoyable, Strangelovian point. It’s worth noting that Eggers was one of the five authors whose “tradecraft” was celebrated at a White House luncheon, covered by the New York Times on January 19, the day before Obama’s administration ended. This thin separation between parody and propaganda briefly gives The Circle unexpected piquancy. Even Kubrick might have laughed.
Eggers and Ponsoldt could have gone further and questioned the use of digital technology that results in events such as the Arab Spring; they might have referenced the recent anarchist riots as social-media-derived political fabrications. But the filmmakers fall short of satire that is also meaningful political critique. We need a strong film satirizing the lack of privacy that now occupies public consciousness and that shows how paranoia has also become a game in the D.C. Beltway — and throughout mainstream media — as a way of either avoiding electoral truths or punishing a new government. The Circle is disingenuous about what recent politics and technology have done to us; it’s just that Ponsoldt’s own tradecraft lacks the political confidence to make satire that stings.