The Circle Directed by James Ponsoldt (PG-13)

The Circle had a shot at greatness. The adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel imagines a Google/Facebook-style company as an evil empire trying to take over the world under the guise of honest exposure and the chance to live an idyllic life free of secrets and solitude.

It’s a sinister plot, perhaps already a reflection of the world we live in, but the film version of Eggers’ book runs into serious trouble with tone and editorial finesse, almost reaching cartoon extremes.

Co-writer/director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) graduates to large-scale storytelling with The Circle, but the effort slides right out of his hands almost as soon as it begins.

Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment

Perhaps in the novel, The Circle
was allowed to unfold naturally.
In the movie, it just sort of happens.

Mae (Emma Watson) lives a meek existence as a customer service rep in need of a change. When best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) offers her a chance to join The Circle, a dominating tech company, Mae is ready for the challenge, finding her time on the fully stocked campus invigorating, soon immersed in a lifestyle that demands complete submission to social media interactions.

Proving her worth to co-founder Eamon (Tom Hanks), Mae quickly becomes a star at The Circle, helping to deal with her parents, including her father, Vinnie (Bill Paxton, in his final role), who’s suffering from MS.

Asked to lead a new revolution into daily connection with other Circlers, Mae grows famous and powerful, willingly abandoning what remains of her private life, including feelings for childhood friend Mercer (Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane).

The Circle is best with introductions, establishing Mae’s pained existence in customer service and her anxiety over her father’s physical condition and towering medical bills. Her one place of calm is on the water, enjoying periodic kayaking to help clear her mind.

Mae’s desperation is defined, along with her excitement for The Circle, a sprawling corporate campus that provides everything for its employees, including housing, which keeps Mae close as she joins the team.

Life inside The Circle is ruled by strained positivity, social connection, and total facial-recognition surveillance, made all the more intimate by Eamon’s “SeeChange” program, which allows Circlers to position tiny cameras anywhere they choose, sold as a way to prevent political and law enforcement giants from taking command of the information.

The Big Brother aspects are fascinating, and Ponsoldt does a fine job cementing Eamon as a Jobs/Zuckerberg figure, who veils his power-mad intentions with practiced jocularity, befriending Circlers as he works in secret to own them.

He’s the villain of the tale, but so is Mae, whose brainwashing takes over the midsection of the feature. The nervous young woman is pressured to join a community controlled by social media and literal internal tracking—she ingests a sensor that allows The Circle to monitor her vitals.

Mae is initially skeptical, finding a like-minded soul in shy Circler Ty (John Boyega), who possesses a significant secret that he weirdly gives up during their second meeting. This spectacularly clumsy scene is the first sign something’s gone awry with the picture, which moves from paranoia to corporate submersion in one swoop. Perhaps on the page, Mae’s journey was permitted room to grow. In the movie, it just kind of happens.

As it unfolds, The Circle falls apart, missing bits and pieces of Mae’s experience at the company, which escalates into her position as a 24-hour “cam girl” of sorts, sharing every step of her life with Circlers, which threatens her relationship with her parents, who try to play along until SeeChange becomes too invasive.

A tech-phobic young man with a crush, Mercer is the most botched character of all, a private guy whose life is destroyed by Mae’s harmless celebration of his deer antler art. Circlers immediately label him a butcher, resulting in a confrontation that showcases the limits of Watson’s acting and Coltrane’s thespian inexperience. It’s one of many awkward, overwrought, silly scenes.

As Mae rises in fame and power, she participates in more invasive company inventions, trading her soul to become part of the elite, triggering Annie’s jealousy. However, by this point in the picture, most of the supporting characters are ignored to focus on Mae, leaving significant gaps in the plot.

Pondsoldt is a talented filmmaker, but he seems unprepared to sell the enormity of The Circle’s sinister business, allowing the effort to disintegrate into tepid Faustian bargains, failing to achieve a sustained atmosphere of chilling—and all too real—tech control.

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