James Ponsoldt’s ‘The Circle’ Is a Flat and Shapeless Thriller That Problematically Defends Technophobia

Directed by indie favorite James Ponsoldt, “The Circle” recaptures the simmering paranoia of 70s surveillance thrillers. Sleekly shot and featuring A-list actors with corporate-minded naturalism, the film promises insight before slowly sinking into mindless melodrama. David Eggers, who wrote the original novel, collaborated with Ponsoldt on a script that rushes past the hard questions it poses for a vengeful conclusion without recourse. Despite being one of Emma Watson’s strongest performances ever, her character’s conscience vacillates more frequently than a pendulum. Sadly, Watson’s Mae Holland devolves into a selfish Millennial stereotype who provides unjust credence to those fearing progressive minds at work.

An art history major in college, Mae Holland is barely getting by as a sales temp at a local San Francisco tech firm. Her best friend, Mercer (“Boyhood’s” Ellar Coltrane with a small yet memorable turn), works as a car repairman without any immediate drive to better his occupation. Afflicted with multiple sclerosis, Mae’s father, Vinnie (the late and hugely impactful Bill Paxton), can’t afford proper health insurance to cover his treatment. Cared for daily by Mae’s breezy-voiced mother, Bonnie (Glenne Headley), Vinnie needs a miracle only his progeny can provide.

Courtesy of a phone call by former classmate and good friend, Annie (Karen Gillan in another unceremonious suffering role), Mae lands a rare interview with a booming information technology company known as The Circle. In spite of its colossal pitfalls, “The Circle” is home to the best written work interview scene in cinema history. Hiring manager, Dan (Nate Corddry), launches consecutive curveballs at Mae, but she swings for home every time she’s grilled. Quick on her feet, Mae provides intelligent yet honest answers that wholly reflect her generation’s sense of professionalism. What’s initially so inspiring about Mae is how capable she is without the need to flaunt her intellect. Unlike her pretentious colleagues, Mae is relatable to the masses in any situation, making her the prime candidate for The Circle’s new surveillance technology, “SeeChange.”

(Image Courtesy of STX Entertainment and Europa Corp)

First unveiled at a work seminar by co-founders Eamon Bailey (a captivating Tom Hanks who effortlessly channels the typical dressed-down, low-maintenance Bay Area tech tycoon) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt, a hilarious tense ball of seething angst), “SeeChange” is a small camera that can attach itself to virtually anything. Its ability to transmit high-resolution imagery instantaneously via satellite is just one of several new innovations geared towards total “transparency.” The term describes the company’s omnipotent vision of having all data be readily accessible to the public. The company hopes this new reality will end government back-dealing and ensure all citizens have equal information knowledge.

After “SeeChange” saves Mae from drowning during a late-night kayak excursion, The Circle wields her as their primary promoter. Broadcasting every waking and sleeping moment of her existence, Mae becomes the world’s first unified avatar. She is her own reality show, a conduit for The Circle to tighten its grip on an information-addicted society. Before anyone realizes, The Circle transitions from pioneer technology company to cult deity. Its reach is unlimited, its power unchecked so long as global sweetheart Mae deems it trustworthy.

It isn’t until hackneyed tragedy strikes that Mae is temporarily released from her brainwashed stupor. Even the inventor of “SeeChange,” the elusive Ty Lafitte (John Boyega serving as a faux love interest and conscientious objector of The Circle’s privacy intrusions), can’t fully eradicate Mae’s obsession with such destructive property. The same goes for Annie, whose spiral into despair caused by work-related stress is so on the nose in presentation, it’s cringe-worthy. Annie and Mae’s relationship had massive potential to empower women working together in the work force. Unfortunately, the script felt it wiser to play it commercially safe. “The Circle” bludgeons audiences with bombastic, over-the-top catastrophes dispersed among the confined quietness of the narrative, culminating in extreme tonal awkwardness.

(Image courtesy of STX Entertainment and Europa Corp)

However, “The Circle’s” biggest transgression is how contradictory it is. It positions itself as a cautionary tale warning of social media’s increasing foothold on our daily lives. Yet, its narrative seems to suggest that in the right hands, it is permissible to monopolize information distribution for the betterment of mankind. Hence, there’s a delusional thought-process woven into the fabric of the film’s ideology that is truly unsettling. The arguments proposed are eerily convincing, but the film refuses to draw moral lines in the sand separating traditionalists who fear technology and progressives who embrace it.

Ultimately, “The Circle” never grapples with the ethical concerns Millennials face beyond quick reactionary moments. Instead, The Circle’s “Internet” is a nefarious means to an end. Moreover, Mae is nothing but a calculating, regulation-thirsty idealist who will gladly sacrifice privacy for enforced peace. Sadly, “The Circle” only strengthens the paranoia surrounding the rise of young people and the technologies they harness to express their outrage against the establishment.

“The Circle” is co-distributed by STX Entertainment and Europa Corp and arrives in theaters everywhere on April 28.

GRADE: (★★)

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