The Circle (2017)

216 The Circle

It’s interesting how some movies can trigger a tsunami of negative commentary that is disproportionate to the film’s cinematic qualities. The so-called sci-fi thriller The Circle (2017) is one such movie. Perhaps any film that satirises the seductions and power of techno giants like Google, Apple and Facebook is treading on sacred ground. While it’s not a masterpiece, the film does its job in airing some chilling issues about political and corporate accountability in the ever-expanding digital domain.

Stuck in a dead-end job, Mae Holland (Emma Watson) gets the chance of a lifetime to work with the world’s biggest intelligence surveillance company called The Circle. It’s a dream workplace with thousands of employees and every conceivable benefit, but it also expects 24/7 commitment and social involvement. She comes to the attention of the guru-styled CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) who nurtures her advancement in the company. It turns out that she is a natural at selling Eamon’s ideas for increasing employee surveillance and she even volunteers to wear a constant monitoring camera. She becomes the company’s high-profile propagandist for transparency and the dispensability of personal privacy. The company introduces automatic voter registration for employees and its own preferred congressional candidate. It wants to extend Circle accounts to the entire population and link everyone to the electoral process. Unexpected things happen when the transparency lens is turned inward on the company.

So why is this film being thoroughly trashed? Emma Watson is difficult to watch without seeing her Hermione halo, but she is perfect for a role that calls for naïve understatement. Tom Hanks plays a likeable baddie with his usual over-reliance on those adorably furrowed Scully eyebrows. But describing this film as a futuristic sci-fi thriller has raised expectations that are impossible to meet when its narrative suspense curve is mostly flat and its technology already available. Then there is that feeling where someone is lecturing you about the dangers of believing technological masterminds with a script that often sounds somewhere between melodrama and corny.

There is one redeeming feature that makes this film undeserving of universal panning. It modernises Orwell’s 1984 into a techno-dystopia with a core premise that is not as absurd as some might think. The sheer scale of economic and political power of today’s mega technology empires surpasses that of contemporary government and they have repeatedly demonstrated the ability to distort democracy everywhere it exists. If fake news can sway elections, what can real-time online manipulations of voting behaviour do? Audiences and critics do not like being mocked for their willingness to be herded like sheep into digital dependence. The warnings in this film hit home.


Director: James Ponsoldt

Stars:  Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega

A United Arab Emirates & USA production