If The Circle isn’t the biggest disappointment of the moviegoing spring, it’s up there. This tech thriller is actually fairly watchable, but I was expecting more. Not only does it have Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, but the director is James Ponsoldt, who’s coming off three excellent movies on the spin. (Okay, okay, they’re Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and The End of the Tour. Check them out.) I had every reason to think this would be great, so it was disheartening watching the thing crash and burn near the end.
Watson plays Mae Holland, who’s working a dreary job at a California city water board before her pal Annie (Karen Gillan) gets her a dream gig as a customer helpline operator at The Circle, a Silicon Valley tech firm that’s essentially Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and Google Earth rolled into one, headed up by a Steve Jobs-like guru CEO named Eamon Bailey (Hanks). Unfortunately, he has a vision of using The Circle to subject everyone — governments, terrorists, you, me — to round-the-clock surveillance to force them to be on their best behavior at all times. Smart as she is, Mae takes a while to see the sinister side of this.
The best thing here is undoubtedly the acting. Hanks has tried to play villains in the past (The Ladykillers, Road to Perdition), but this is the first time he succeeds — he can totally do the warm, fatherly bad guy who gets you to do evil for him by convincing you that he’s looking out for you. The late Bill Paxton, in his last screen performance, contributes a graceful turn as Mae’s MS-afflicted dad. As for Watson, what I notice here is how extraordinarily well she moves on screen, as in a throwaway gag when Mae walks downhill at an outdoor party and temporarily loses her balance. Her sense of comic timing makes for a nice tossed-off line when Mae struggles to keep up with the much-taller Annie’s walking pace and calls out, “Your legs are so long!” In this film and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, she’s charmingly loose in a way that she isn’t elsewhere. (If it wasn’t for those Harry Potter films, you might think she was one of those British actors who’s more comfortable playing Americans.) For all that, later on in the film, when Eamon has her addressing large crowds of her colleagues at work functions, she commands a large room with formidable ease.
Ponsoldt directs too smoothly for his movie’s good, failing to convey the sense of all-encompassing paranoia the material demands. Nor can he fix the flaws inherent in the Dave Eggers novel that this is based on. (Eggers is Ponsoldt’s co-writer on the script.) John Boyega from Star Wars: The Force Awakens plays a mysterious programmer at The Circle, and this character is so blatantly a deus ex machina that it does the actor no favors. Mae’s character makes no sense, either, vacillating from drinking The Circle’s Kool-Aid to trying to bring them down and back without any logic. The way she ultimately turns the table on Eamon is so obvious that you wonder why no one else thought of it.
Real life has outstripped this movie. Just look at the way people used Facebook Live to broadcast murder, suicide, and rape, and look at how unprepared Facebook was as a company to deal with such predictable use of their technology. Much like Mae, the movie doesn’t seem to comprehend just how evil this tech utopia threatens to be — some foreign dictatorship or our own government would surely try to use The Circle to spy on their own people and execute anybody who mentioned human rights online. Ponsoldt needed some of the spirit of 1984 here. Someday, somebody will make a great movie that skewers the geek optimism of these tech moguls who think we’ll solve all our problems if we just use their for-profit platforms to connect with each other. The pity is, The Circle could have been that movie.
Starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. Directed by James Ponsoldt. Written by James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on Eggers’ novel. Rated PG-13.