The Circle

A young woman lands a job at a powerful internet company but soon discovers that its lavish perks and gung-ho culture conceal a troubling agenda.

Year: 2017
Certificate: 12
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Tom HanksEmma WatsonJames PonsoldtKaren GillanJohn BoyegaEllar ColtraneGlenne HeadlyBill PaxtonPatton Oswalt

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Guest Reviewer: Neil Studd (from Screen Testing Podcast) [twitter] [podcast]

“The Circle” is the latest big-screen adaptation of a book by Dave Eggers (whose previous novel, “A Hologram for the King“, was also made into a Tom Hanks feature film last year). It’s a tale which is big on ideas, even if they’re not particularly fresh: the movie definitely feels like several good “Black Mirror” episodes squeezed into one convoluted story. Nevertheless, as somebody who makes their living in this sector, and who co-hosts a podcast about technology in the movies, this was always going to be a film that I watched, regardless of its lukewarm reviews.

The movie finds Mae Holland (Emma Watson) working for a definitely-not-Google company called The Circle, a pioneering digital organisation which aims to unite the world through its innovative technologies. Somewhat inevitably, there’s conflict when freedom of information threatens to erode the privacy of unsuspecting individuals.

Sadly, the “toxic experiment” which is hinted-at in the film’s synopsis is utterly predictable, and fails to go in any of the directions that I hoped. With Emma Watson in the leading role, I was looking forward to some serious cutting insight into the struggles that women face within large IT organisations, but (outside of a deliberately-awkward line of questioning during her interview) Mae’s gender is largely irrelevant, and instead we’re left with a fairly clichéd look at surveillance culture.

It’s a difficult watch at times, mostly because “The Circle” seems to be very unsure of its tone. In early scenes, it seems to be lampooning startup culture in a similar fashion to HBO’s wonderful sitcom “Silicon Valley” (for instance, we get to witness the company’s “doga” class – that’s dog yoga – yes it’s a real thing, I checked!) but for the most part it’s played entirely straight-faced. For instance, during Mae’s first week at The Circle, there’s a staff party which (in order to show the company’s wealth and power) features a concert from Beck. However, the movie then proceeds to show us a full minute of the concert, the sort of exuberant promotional exercise that the film otherwise seems to be poking fun at. This makes it difficult to tell whether the film is featuring jokes which are falling flat, or is trying to create drama out of surreal situations.

Much of the film is seen through Mae’s eyes – or, more specifically, the eyes of millions of viewers worldwide who are watching Mae’s day-to-day movements through a 24/7 video stream. Although it’s hackneyed in places, credit is due for the amount of background detail here, as each scene features a flow of popup comments from anonymous viewers, ranging from sentimental to flat-out trolling (as anyone who’s ventured to the bottom half of the internet will recognise). While the story itself is lacking depth in places, the film is exquisitely pieced-together to make for a rich viewing experience.

Outside of these scenes, The Circle is a film which is big on monologues for boss Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). Many key turning points are in the form of presentations at board meetings, or “TED Talks”-style showcases which are eerily accurate, though they veer into lazy exposition at times. There are cringey moments as pumped-up employees shout motivational messages from the crowd, though the cringe is mostly from flashbacks to my own real-life experiences of such meetings!

“The Circle” might not be a film which leaves a lasting impact on its viewers, but fate allows it one piece of cinematic history, as it features a final posthumous appearance from Bill Paxton. His portrayal of Mae’s father is heartbreaking to watch, not least because his character has a debilitating illness which leaves him fragile and helpless. The story of Mae’s parents is a rare show of deep character development which is sadly lacking elsewhere in the film.

Ultimately, it’s a tremendously hard film to grade. Do I think it’s great? No. Is it engrossing, entertaining and watchable? Certainly. It’s a slick, smart thriller that’s worthy of your time, but perhaps doesn’t have quite as much to say as it thinks it has.

Have you seen this film? Let us know your opinions in the comments below and of course if there are any films on Netflix UK you want us to review let us know!

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