The Circle Film Criticism | Vogue
If you hoped The circle, a new movie about a sinister tech company with Big Brother aspirations, was going to cure you of your phone addiction, you better watch just about any episode of Black mirror. The new film, directed by James Ponsoldt (The spectacular now), is based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Dave Eggers, which was written almost a decade after Facebook was founded and shortly before Periscope and live streaming officially became a thing.
In an era when Congress agreed to let companies sell people’s search history, you’d think a movie about the potential dangers of massive data collection would seem more urgent, but The circle falls surprisingly short. The film tells the story of Mae Holland (played by Emma Watson), a struggling young woman who has a sad temporary job in an extremely beige office. Luckily, her childhood friend Annie manages to give Mae an interview with The Circle, a company that’s essentially an imagined combination of Google’s ubiquity, Facebook’s massive global following, and 23andMe’s DNA cataloging. When Annie later shows Mae on a tour of her new headquarters, The Circle is presented as a utopia for her employees: there’s a gym, a daycare, a swimming pool, a clinic and even a nightclub. Health care benefits are offered to both Mae and her ailing father (played by the late Bill Paxton), and all the benefits also come with a well-paid salary, even though Mae works as a junior employee in the customer service. You know what they say: if it’s too good to be true. . .
The Circle’s most nefarious intentions are later revealed when one of its founders, the much admired Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks does his best with Steve Jobs) delivers a speech announcing the company’s latest initiative, SeeChange, a Easily camouflaged camera that can record anything from anywhere in the world while analyzing data at lightning speed. Although the concept of having recording devices everywhere is not particularly revolutionary – millions of people already have it available anytime in their pockets – the idea of tiny little cameras hidden in every corner is pretty scary. But instead of immediately raising an eyebrow, Bailey’s announcement of his company’s goal of watching everyone, everywhere, all the time is greeted with thunderous applause. “Sharing is taking care of them,” he told the audience of his thousands of employees, who repeat it bluntly.
From that point on, Mae became more and more deeply rooted in The Circle’s anti-privacy philosophy, until at some point, after a near-death experience, she agreed to become “Completely transparent”, which means that she will broadcast her life to millions of people. 24 hour subscribers. Along the way, she meets a mysterious colleague (played by an underutilized John Boyega), who warns her of the enormous potential for authoritarianism and greed looming just behind the main speaker’s curtain. But it’s hard to believe he would be the only person who could see where these things are going. At the film’s abrupt and ambiguous end, you wonder if the employees at The Circle are still buying this idea of radical transparency or if they accidentally suffered brain damage while drinking all that Soylent.
Back in real life, consumers willingly share more than they should and often agree to the terms of service without reading the fine print, but they still know where to draw the line. That’s why this week, Unroll.Me, a service that helps users unsubscribe from spam emails, landed in hot water after it was revealed to be sell messaging data to Uber. But, again, this week Amazon also unveiled its latest gadget, Echo look, a tiny Echo device affixed to a camera that’s meant to give users fashion advice (and essentially offer the feeling – though the reality is vigorously denied by Amazon – of giving their HQ a live stream that’s constantly available in your home) with little backlash. And you, Jeff Bezos?