The Circle is directed by James Ponsoldt and stars Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega and Karen Gillan.
This movie is basically the story of what would happen if Google were to partner up with Scientology, if somehow their motto was not “Don’t be evil” but instead was “Do the right thing.” Oh wait a minute, Google did drop that old motto and they have adopted the motto “Do the right thing.” This review isn’t meant to be a morality play about Google, but this movie, The Circle, certainly is and I will say that after seeing this movie, I wish Google had just stuck with their original slogan because you can do a whole lot of evil while pretending to do a whole lot of good.
The trailers for this film portray The Circle, a company eerily like Google or Apple combined with Facebook, like a cult and as a former Scientologist, I was interested in how they were actually going to lay this out. The movie is based on the 2013 book by David Eggers and while he claims to have not done a lot of research on tech companies and the enclosed cultures they create to keep their workers so happy that they never want to stop working, I will say that Eggers clearly did research how destructive cults operate.
We learn about Emma Watson’s character, Mae, right from the opening scene as she is paddling around on the ocean, ignoring her phone and getting a respite from her dead-end, mind-numbing temp work in a life that is not bringing her much happiness. Then she gets a call from her friend Annie, played by Karen Gillan, who works at The Circle, to find out she has a job interview there. Instantly Mae’s prospects are looking up and when she lands a job in Customer Experience, basically tech support, her life suddenly takes a sharp new turn for the better. As she is introduced to the bubble world of The Circle and the extreme sharing culture that she is now part of, she slowly accepts that privacy is no longer a right but instead is a kind of crime. As she comes to the attention of the head of the company, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks, she finds herself being drawn in further and further into the philosophy he forwards that “knowing is good but knowing everything is even better.” At first a bit surprised and wary of this new world, she soon embraces it whole heartedly, especially when her father, who has multiple sclerosis, is put on the company’s health plan and other things happen which give her the idea that she should be more a part of the group and not less. Soon she is herself coming up with thought-stopping cliches which Bailey is impressed by, such as “secrets are lies.” This leads to further and further shenanigans as things get totally out of hand but the end is not quite what you expect. It’s not as dark as Eggers’ novel, but it’s not what I thought was coming.
Now I have some experience with destructive cults, how people get sucked into them and what it takes to get out of one. It’s no easy feat. I also know how people who have not been conned or fooled by cult trickery can have a wholly unfair view about people who do. From an objective, audience point of view, it’s easy to watch a film like The Circle and knowingly nudge your friend or family member and smirk about how stupid the people in the film are, how anyone could take apart the inane logic of these cliches and obviously no one would be so stupid as to fall for the surveillance state tactics which The Circle encourages on its own employess as it tries to assimilate the entire world into its culture. Yet if you stop being so smart for a second and think for just a moment, you’ll notice that you and everyone else who ever logs on to Google, uses Facebook or Amazon or Apple or Twitter or Instagram or any of the legion of other online social media services have already agreed to an invasion of your privacy that would have been not just unheard of but outright appalling just 20 years ago. The entire Western culture is steeped in oversharing. We may think we as individuals are above it, that we are aware of it and so aren’t part of it but I can’t help but shake my head and think about that old joke about traffic. You know, the one that goes “You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic.” The lessons this film has to teach are not original and are not necessarily very well presented, but they nevertheless are lessons that many of us could still stand to learn from.
The Circle is not a great film. It’s not the first movie to bring up the problems of giving over too much of ourselves to technology, of the dangers of a surveillance society and it certainly isn’t the first movie to show how destructive cult mentalities are fostered, developed and eventually ruin people’s lives. Other films have done all of this better and without having to hit you over the head with their messages quite as hard as The Circle does. Still, it’s a valiant effort and it was fun to watch Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt be a couple of sinister bad guys for once, definitely not their typical casting. In fact, I think if the movie had focused a bit more on them and a bit less on Emma Watson, it might have been a lot more interesting and perhaps a bit more informative as to how these kinds of threats to our personal lives actually come about and why. That is a subject wholly avoided in this film, to its detriminent.
Overall, I’m giving this film a rating of Pretty Good but it really only is getting that because I enjoyed watching Emma Watson’s cult conversion. I don’t think anyone is going to particularly come out of this film thinking “Wow, what an amazing experience” but it is fun and mildly entertaining. Let me know in the comments what you think. If you haven’t subscribed to my channel, now would be a great time to do so. Thanks for watching and I’ll talk to you next time.