‘The Circle’ trades complex plot for atmospheric chills

One of The Circle’s most subtly creepy aspects are the sometimes-chilling comments that follow Holland everywhere she goes after she goes transparent. There’s a remarkable attention here, though it doesn’t quite descend into the horrifying reality of the Youtube comments section. Images courtesy STX Entertainment.

7/10 The Circle could have been better in several ways, but mostly gets where it wants to go.

The movie follows Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a recent college graduate who is hired by The Circle, an Orwellian vision of Facebook and Google. Holland is initially skeptical of the organization, but after the company picks up her father’s multiple sclerosis treatments and saves her life with its constant surveillance, she warms up to some of its more radical ideas. Eventually, she becomes the first person to go “completely transparent” by having a camera on her person at all times streaming live to the Internet.

What The Circle really nails is atmosphere. I had initially dismissed this movie as a disposable Nineteen Eighty-Four knockoff, but it isn’t. It’s hyperfocused on real 21st century technology and blurring the line between mobile devices and social media and surveillance. Fantastic dialogue captures the creepiness of social media pressures and a work environment that’s a little too concerned with doubling as a social one. Sleek, trendy set design also helps bring the fear of Big Brother into the near future.

There’s always a question in this kind of heavy-handed movie — why isn’t anyone on the screen reacting the way I am? Valuing privacy seems to be a rare thing in this world — but The Circle does a good job of presenting the upshot to this kind of surveillance. Instead of following an everyman character and portraying him as an Only Sane Man for wanting his privacy, the movie follows a company woman who is trying to make the world a better place through omnipresent cameras. Where Big Brother was watching us, The Circle sells itself by offering to watch government officials and criminals, keeping society accountable in ways it never could be otherwise. As Holland begins to insist that “secrets are lies” and that having private moments is an act of robbing other people of your experience,  the movie becomes an almost sarcastic exploration of its subject matter.

Tom Hanks, who also produces, and Patton Oswalt are at their charming and sinister best as Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, two of the wise men.

While The Circle knows exactly what style it’s going for, it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going with its plot, which is sure to be a common and crippling criticism for anyone else ready to cast it as a lazy riff on Orwell. It’s a scrubbed version of the 2013 novel, which was much more challenging for several reasons. In the book, The Circle’s founders are referred to as the three wise men, giving the whole thing a biblical slant, and we get to see more Annie Allerton’s (Karen Gillan) descent into anxiety and drug abuse much more graphically. Most importantly, in the book, Holland never balks at the damage The Circle is obviously doing. She continues to rationalize her situation, leaving a much more ambiguous ending.

The script was written by Dave Eggers, who wrote the novel, and James Pondsolt, who directed and produced, so it’s fair to assume the creatives got their way on this and the plot’s sanitization wasn’t the result of some executive swooping down and setting the standard. There’s condescending merit to the idea that a broader audience needs a less murky plot, and there are gains from the tradeoffs they make. In leaving Allerton’s torment to the imagination while keeping a tight focus on Holland, for example, we get to stick with our main character and see her make choices and explore her real priorities. But it still would have been nicer to see that darker take brought to the big screen.

So while it’s a much weaker film than it could have been, it’s tough to say The Circle is bad when everything I’d see changed about it was done consciously by the creators. Maybe just a missed opportunity.

Leopold Knopp is a journalism student at the University of North Texas. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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