Film Review: The Circle, and our Looming Synthetic Dystopia

Based on the novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle follows an ambitious young professional into her new job at a company endeavoring to fasten a socio-technological harness on the world.  The bright and driven Mae, played with quiet self-control by Emma Watson, adapts quickly to the slick synthetic world and shiny, happy faces of the corporate community that so enthusiastically welcomes her.  With the exception of Mercer, an isolated friend from her past, everyone seems thrilled about her winning this position, but shadows quickly start to form, spreading beneath the plastic surfaces of The Circle’s freshly constructed buildings and openly lighted offices and meeting rooms.

The warmly officious Bailey (Tom Hanks), introduces himself by declaring, “I believe in the perfectibility of human beings,” and the company’s mission seems to align with the vision of a safer, more unified, and healthier society.  Knowledge will be the key to this utopian future, where those presumably responsible enough to employ such authority will have the means to do so via inventions like multi-purpose eyeball-sized cameras, and programs like SoulSearch, allowing them to locate an individual anywhere on the globe in a matter of seconds.  An undercurrent of well-intentioned concern for the lives of others propels Bailey’s search for perfection, although a more powerful influence may be guiding his sleek, determined enterprise.

The film has a strong supporting cast, including Bill Paxton, Glenne Headly, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega, and Poorna Jagannathan.  As Mae’s ailing father, Paxton contrasts his patriarchal Bill Henrickson character from Big Love with a more fragile dad who’s strength is waning.  Glenne Headly, as her mom, dutifully comforts and encourages both Mae and her father.  Her Circle-assigned best friend, played by Gillan (Doctor Who), gradually fades away as Mae rises to prominence in the company, while her old best friend, Mercer (Coltrane), gets forced out of her life by surveillance-mad coworkers from her office.  Oswalt, Boyega, and Jagannathan give distinctive performances as Bailey’s partner, a renowned hacker and fellow newcomer to The Circle, and the doctor in charge of caring for its employees.

The story progresses at a quick pace, involving subjects and themes such as appearance vs. reality, solitude/community, privacy, freedom, civil authority and technology, social responsibility and the ethical use of power, and both the necessary and the ideal conditions in which human beings may live, grow, and thrive.  Part of what the film does well is elucidate many dangers we’re dealing with as a society, and by applying pressure to some of those susceptible areas, it invites us to seek answers beyond the numbing patterns of techno-reliance, beyond indifference to the humanity and inherent freedoms of every living person on our planet.  Each of us has choices to make about whether or not we violate the rights of others in the course of our work, social, and personal lives.  As many of us know, those decisions will in turn measure the respect, liberty, and generosity that come back to us, sooner or later.

Avoiding clichés might be as challenging as ever for filmmakers, yet The Circle manages to create an experience that never feels familiar and keeps us in anticipation, guessing at the characters’ true motives, and eager to know what will happen next.  Ms. Watson portrays a digital age Red Riding Hood behind the scenes in one of Big Brother’s laboratories, excelling at a game she might despise, and like so many people in today’s evolving technological landscape, Mae adapts swiftly and forges ahead toward the luminous, indiscernible horizon.


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