The star that makes “The Circle” go round is the very young and captivating Emma Watson. While much of this dystopian tech thriller may be flat and repetitive, it’s hard to argue that Emma Watson turns in a worthy star performance. In short, Emma Watson shines in “The Circle,” the new film from director James Ponsoldt.
There are a bevy of big names in “The Circle” – including Tom Hanks (as Eamon Bailey), Patton Oswalt (as Tom Stenton) and Bill Paxton (as Vinnie Holland), but Emma Watson (who plays Mae Holland, a young tech worker) outshines them all.
The problem here is that Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt are unconvincing as villainous Silicon Valley types. There’s a reason why one reviewer called Tom Hanks a “charming, folksy Dad type” in this film – he’s hardly believable as the type of person who’s running one of the most important tech companies in the world. Are we really supposed to believe that he’s the tech genius who is behind a sinister plan to shape the future of privacy, ethics and personal freedom?
That leaves it up to Emma Watson to make this movie work. She is the engine that keeps the movie moving, even when dialogue that seems a bit too scripted bogs it down at times. She is eager and wholesome at just the right time, and perfectly embodies the kind of energy and naïveté that you might expect from a recent college graduate embarking on a career at a company like Facebook, Twitter or Google. And so this film is really about her character “waking up” to the reality of the evil tech company, known as The Circle.
The basic plot is one that’s immediately recognizable to anyone who’s seen an episode of “Black Mirror” on Netflix. That is to say, technology that might once have seemed capable of changing the world is now changing humanity in ways that can be dark and sinister. Think of hidden surveillance cameras all over the world, which are taking stock of your every action, and people in your social network judging you on a real-time basis. You, too, would want to present a perfect façade to the world, to hide your deficiencies and avoid a negative judgment.
The person who becomes our point of entry into this world is, of course, Emma Watson. She engages in an experiment at her company – The Circle – that could impact the future of her friends and family. Emma Watson senses that something strange might be happening at the company, and she’s the key to unlocking the message at the heart of the movie: Be very wary of what Silicon Valley is promising you. (And, whatever you do, always check your Facebook privacy settings!)
To make the Silicon Valley morality tale complete, all the action takes place in a glass, doughnut-shaped building that bears an uncanny resemblance to the new Apple headquarters being built in California. This is the future – but it is definitely the near future.
Let’s face it – many of us grew up with Emma Watson in “Harry Potter.” Now she’s growing up, and we’re growing up with her. So it’s only natural that one of her first new films after “Beauty and the Beast” (where Emma was amazing, by the way!) would be one featuring a key moment in the transition from adolescence to adulthood – the “first real job.” In the case of her character Mae Holland, it’s the dream job of working at the world’s foremost social media company. For her, working at The Circle is what one of us would feel if we landed a job at Facebook or Google.
And we see how Emma Watson makes sense of this workplace around her. The drama unfolds around The Circle events, The Circle housing and The Circle healthcare. Everything is The Circle. We’re eager to see if Emma Watson can pull it off, much as we wondered if Tom Cruise could pull it off when he worked at The Firm.
The director of the film, James Ponsoldt, is also the creative force behind the teen coming-of-age story “The Spectacular Now,” so it’s no surprise that he’s so effortlessly able to convey the sense of what it’s like to maintain a precarious balance between the worlds of adulthood and adolescence.
In this case, the two worlds also include are the physical and digital worlds. Mae Holland is most at home in the physical realm – where her ex-boyfriend leads a non-digital life and her parents are good, down-to-earth people who don’t “get” the whole concept of the Internet and social networking.
That’s why Emma Watson is so able to help us live vicariously in the world of young adolescence. What adult reviewers of the film may not get is the strange nature of purely digital relationships, where it’s possible to date someone and break up with someone, entirely by text message.
Part of the difficulty of telling any tale of technology is the fact that so much of the story is hard to show on a big screen. How do you show what’s on a computer screen, or the contents of an email, or the contents of a text message? That’s why it’s so important that Emma Watson be able to convey such a rich and dynamic range of expression in her role as Mae Holland. We see her in the workplace, and it’s her reaction to what’s happening on the computer screen that’s critical for grasping what’s happening in the film. Her facial expressions are priceless.
Ultimately, it’s possible to love Emma Watson in this role and not love the film. The film only has a score of 5.4/10.0 on IMDb, and a score of 43% on Metacritic, so this is not going to be a huge critical hit. Without Emma Watson, though, this film would have bombed.
And remember – the film was made with a budget of “only” $18 million. The focus was not on making a huge blockbuster hit (even if Tom Hanks does have a huge role in the film) – it was presenting a cautionary tale of technology and of technological hubris. As part of that story, Emma Watson is simply outstanding. She’s the key to unlocking the message of the film, and she shines in every scene in which she appears.