The story involves a bright young woman named Mae (Emma Watson), who gives up her dead-end job to join The Circle, a nebulous Apple/Facebook/Google-type digital conglomerate headed up by the charismatic Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). She soon distinguishes herself among her cohorts (“guppies”, as they’re affectionately titled) and rises up the ranks to become one of the company’s chief creative strategists, pitching ideas to improve their TrueYou platform. After spending more time at The Circle, Mae begins to peel back the picture-perfect corporate culture to reveal darker secrets that lurk under the surface with the help of a mysterious employee played by John Boyega.
Director James Ponsoldt, who’s responsible for winning indie dramas like The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, has a talent for bringing out the intimate and human dimensions in his stories, so it’s no wonder that he’s such a poor match for this material given its preference for machine over man. Save for a pair of performances by Glenne Headly and the recently deceased Bill Paxton as Mae’s parents, the movie is sorely lacking any kind of emotional anchor upon which to tether any kind of techno-paranoia that may develop from the story. Mae’s doting boyfriend Mercer, played with a stunning lack of conviction by Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane, could be seen as the film’s moral backbone if it bothered to take a defined stance on the role technology should play in our day-to-day lives.
Ponsoldt doesn’t get much help from a Dave Eggers-penned script, adapted from his 2013 novel, that introduces far too many plotlines that seem to come out of left field (Mae’s story, for instance, takes a complete 180 around the halfway mark) and negate whatever narrative momentum has already been established. He has so much that he wants to say about how this kind of new technology could affect how we live and yet very few of his points are woven into the story with the kind of cohesion that would make them salient or intriguing. It plays like a half-baked episode of Black Mirror that has all of the neat gadgetry and starring roles figured out but doesn’t have enough new insight on its subject material.
Despite its apparent lack of focus, there are nuggets of inspired concepts buried within the needlessly convoluted story that suggest a more pointed or satirical take on how interact with our plethora of devices. There are visual cues like the slow proliferation of screens at Mae’s desk to the sea of illuminated emblems in an audience enamored with their tablets that subtly remind us just how inundated we are with bright new distractions every day. In the film’s best scene, Mae tells an employee conducting her job interview that her greatest fear is unfulfilled potential and if that’s the case, there’s no doubt that The Circle would have terrified her.