‘The Circle’ Is A Messy Adaptation And A Feeble Addition To The Cyber-Panic Genre

The Circle” commits a terrible movie crime: It botches its own premise, coming up hollow and spineless. 

There’s no use trying to be more measured. The big-screen adaptation of Dave Eggers’ best-selling 2013 novel about a surveillance-happy internet corporation betrays stories that tackle techno-panic in our increasingly digital world. Eggers’ book is a pulpy page-turner that updates elements of 1984 and Brave New World, even if its execution isn’t as immersive or clever. In movie form, almost everything gets lost in translation. The tone isn’t alarming enough to be a thriller, nor is it witty enough to be a satire, offering no effective commentary about the breadth of our electronic footprints.

No movie should be required to preach a message, but what’s the point in depicting the ills of technology without offering a point of view? We’re talking about a genre that has always been rife with sociopolitical subtext. Think of “Minority Report,” the Philip K. Dick adaptation that asks complicated questions about free will by depicting a police state that uses technology to apprehend criminals. Take the arguable hallmark of science fiction, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and its layered story about a sentient computer that nearly robs astronauts’ ability to control their spacecraft. Even more aligned with “The Circle” are “WALL-E,” “Her” and the Season 3 opener of “Black Mirror,” three deft futuristic chronicles of tech’s effects on human communication. 

It’s especially a bummer because “The Circle” does operate on a timely, intriguing premise. But Eggers and James Ponsoldt’s screenplay is such a tonal and thematic mess that the entire endeavor becomes a waste. 

In it, Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, an office drone whose best friend gets her an interview at a hip internet company called The Circle. Virtuosic chieftain Eamon Bailey, a Steve Jobs type played by Tom Hanks, wants to make the digital sphere more connected ― devices linked, social media inescapable, everyone’s whereabouts publicly tracked at all times. Bailey’s motto is “Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better.” It’s a near-totalitarian nightmare, but you wouldn’t quite know that from the movie, which reduces descriptions of The Cicle’s intents to stiff monologues and exchanges characters for what might as well be cardboard cutouts. 

As Mae continues to work there, she becomes more and more of a convert. She joins the company’s prestigious upper ranks and watches her popularity rise in real time. That, in and of itself, is a huge concept. It invokes our addiction to social media’s instant gratification, as well as the obvious ways that enterprises like Google and Facebook are tracking our online data. But “The Circle” only poses questions ― it rarely answers them. The novel has access to characters’ interior lives. Without them, the movie is powerless. As Mae learns more about The Circle’s inner workings, the movie’s tone hardly aligns with the story’s implications. We never fully understand the Circle overlords’ motivations, and Watson’s plodding performance ensures we never fully understand Mae either.

Usually I think movies without redeeming values aren’t worth the word count. But this is different, not only because it’s an adaptation of a popular novel, but because Hollywood studios can only greenlight so many parables about our cyber destiny. That cinematic trend has its roots in the 1990s, when the internet seemed unknowable. “The Net” and “Hackers” jump-started the mini-genre in 1995, using enigmatic paranoia to fuel their narratives. Given how much more we know about the internet now, for “The Circle” to remain so toothless means Hollywood has wasted an opportunity to tell a relevant story. 

The movie’s third act finds Mae “going transparent,” which means she wears a miniature camera that turns her existence into an all-day live feed. Those who’ve read the book know this results in a character’s tragic death, an episode that rattles Mae and leaves her questioning The Circle’s conscience. In the film, her fallout is so ham-fisted and her retaliation is so broad that any inklings of a thesis statement are expunged. 

What went wrong in this adaptation? Hard to say, especially considering James Ponsoldt is known as a director to watch thanks to “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour.” He and the cast have given few interviews to promote the movie, and the marketing campaign has seemed relatively muted, even though “The Circle” is opening on more than 3,000 screens, a sum commonly reserved for blockbusters. The film’s highest-profile moment was its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday, a whole two days before it opens theatrically. That’s not a sign of faith on a studio’s part. Maybe one day we’ll know why such a promising endeavor resulted in such a disastrous product. For now, carry on with your digital activities. “The Circle” might as well convince us there’s nothing to fret.

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