At the start of The Circle, Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is quite literally stuck in a box. A cubicle, that is. And the only person who can free her from Office Space-style hell to the rolling hills of a tech company campus is her best friend and savior, Annie (Karen Gillan). After Annie gets Mae an interview at the Circle, a tech company of mash-up of Facebook and Google, with a dash of George Orwell's 1984, Mae skyrockets from her bleak, gray office to the hallowed, glassy halls of Silicon Valley.
On her first day of work, Mae enters a magical elevator with Annie that projects images of their friendship onto the walls — think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets Facebook. Typical poses of a long-term friendship abound, from the middle-school hand-on-hip pose to the “going out” smirk. But a few photos do not an intimate on-screen friendship make.
This relationship, which serves as Mae’s introduction to the Circle, has some distractingly confusing aspects. If Annie and Mae are the same age and grew up together, then how can Annie already hold an inner-sanctum job at a prestigious tech haven, while Mae toils in an administrative role at a water company? How did Annie and Mae meet in childhood, if Mae lives in a run-down town in the California desert and Annie is from Scotland? Why is Annie's Scottish heritage never mentioned?
But if the friendship starts off in unbelievable territory, it soon ventures out to the Land of the Straight-Up Ridiculous. Teaming up with the company’s CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), Mae becomes the living symbol of Circle’s commitment to radical truth and transparency. She wears a miniature camera that turns her daily life into a live-stream. Nothing is off-limits — including, in one cringe-worthy scene, an intimate glimpse of her parents projected to her 2 million followers.
As Mae rapidly climbs the company ladder, Annie devolves into an overworked mess. During one conference held in the Circle’s amphitheater, Mae sits on stage with Eamon Bailey. Annie, sitting alone in the row where she had previously sat with Mae, looks visibly disheveled and mutters to herself like a madwoman.
Mae lets weeks go by without speaking to Annie, because of course that’s what “good friends” do. At last, Mae chases Annie down and they have an intimate conversation in a bathroom, where Mae is allotted three camera-free, private moments. In addition to pulling all-nighters, Annie reveals she must battle hordes of sycophantic coworkers trying to get to Mae through her. With the stall door separating her from Annie, Mae wears a half-hearted expression of concern, but never apologizes or empathizes.
Most importantly, neither Annie nor Mae intervene in the other's concerning life paths: Annie’s working for days straight, Mae’s working to perpetuate an evil empire. Instead, they leave the stainless steel bathroom stalls and don’t talk again until the end of the movie. Then, after a prolonged silence, a reformed Mae video chats with Annie, who’s now prancing about in the Scottish Highlands. Annie's left the Circle, the blush has returned to her cheeks, and all is forgiven — though the two friends don't engage in any sort of heart-to-heart exchange.
Ironically, the company both women work for envisions a culture of full disclosure. In the Circle’s dream future, everyone’s personal details, from their location to their emails, would be completely accessible. Yet in the movie’s sole intimate friendship, nothing substantial is shared. No secrets, no laughter, and no details of their history together. Essentially, even between friends, there’s no transparency. Because, honestly? Annie and Mae aren’t friends. They’re just two similarly-aged actresses cast as friends to further a half-baked plot.
In severely under-developing the women’s friendship, The Circle missed out on an opportunity to root an unbelievable story in the relatable, murky trenches of loyalty, jealousy, and intimacy. Instead, the movie ignores all basic human relations in favor of chasing the implications of tech ideals.
I went to see The Circle with two of my best girl friends, and I made a vow to myself between handfuls of popcorn. If either of them teams up with two Steve Jobs look-alikes to plot world domination through placing miniature cameras all over the world, they’ll have to come through me first. What else are old friends for, if not putting the breaks on your mistakes — or at least trying to?
The Circle hit theaters on Friday, April 28.
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