The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Circle

The Circle is a movie that would have been amazing about eight years ago. It's a cautionary tale regarding the way modern technology allows unprecedented levels of “inter-connectivity.” The things it warns us about are, however, already here to some degree, thanks to the likes of Twitter, Periscope, and other apps installed on our assorted devices. The film is certainly interesting and ambitious, but because it's also a tad outdated, a few key storytelling flaws are more noticeable than they might be if the themes were ahead of the curve rather than behind it.

Emma Watson plays Mae Holland, a young woman who gets a job working as a customer service representative for a massive, Microsoft-esque tech company called The Circle. The brains behind the business belong to Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), a smart, affable guy who encourages his employees to continually push the boundaries of what's possible. His current innovation is a tiny adhesive camera that can be stuck literally anywhere in the world, allowing whatever it captures to be broadcast across the internet. “Transparency” is his obsession. Mae quickly rises through the ranks of the company, impressing Eamon with her drive. She's just glad to get her ailing father (Bill Paxton) on a decent health-care plan.

Does Mae figure out that across-the-board transparency comes with some undesirable side effects? Yes, she does. The Circle makes a couple compelling arguments about possible benefits of having everything documented. (No more closed doors in Washington!) It makes compelling arguments about possible hazards, too. The problem is that we've already seen some of these benefits (urgent news events broadcast as they're happening by people on the front lines) and hazards (online harassment). The movie is urging us to be weary of something we already know to be weary of – a fact that keeps it from becoming as provocative as it wants to be.

An equally substantive issue concerns three supporting characters, all of whom are crucial to the important choice Mae is forced to make toward the story's end. Annie (Karen Gillan) is the best friend who gets her a job at the company, then becomes jealous of her success. Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane) is Mae's sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend. Ty (John Boyega) is a Circle prodigy who has grown cynical about the company that twisted his big idea into something he doesn't like.

These three players are all underdeveloped, here only to push Mae toward her destiny in prefabricated ways. As soon as Annie becomes envious of her friend's rise, she abruptly starts appearing disheveled and sickly; we don't find out why until a throwaway line of dialogue in the last ten minutes. The roots of Ty's disillusionment, meanwhile, are barely explored. He just issues a generic Don't trust the Circle! message before getting relegated to the background. Mercer fares worst of all. As handled here, he doesn't influence Mae – the specific plot point he's here to illustrate influences her. Coltrane, Gillan, and Boyega are all fantastic actors who deserve more opportunity than The Circle provides them.

Emma Watson does fine work as Mae, and Tom Hanks is typically excellent as the tech guru who's so blinded by what could be that he doesn't always stop to question whether it should be. And while his role is small, the late Bill Paxton makes the most of it, delivering a strong performance as a man struggling to come to terms with serious illness.

The fault is not with the acting. It's not really even with the premise. There's certainly some validity to the story's message that we need to be careful with technology. Directed by The Spectacular Now's James Ponsoldt, The Circle just feels a day late and a dollar short in its treatment of the subject matter. Dave Eggers, co-adapting his own book, takes some character-based shortcuts that don't work, further watering down the themes. The movie is watchable, but there's nothing here you don't already know. For a cautionary tale, that's a huge gaffe.

( out of four)

The Circle is rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.

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