Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is hired to work at the customer-service call center for the Circle, a wildly successful, /Facebook-like social-media company located in the San Francisco Bay Area. She's rated on each call she handles, and it's made clear that anything less than a 100-percent approval rating is looked down upon. She's also gently but firmly scolded for not participating more in the company's many on-campus activities, which include parties, concerts, and self-help events, and for not posting more online about her personal life, such as her love of kayaking. As the company's charismatic founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), says, "Knowing is good. But knowing everything is better." He believes it's a human right to know everything about everybody; openness and accountability are paramount, he insists. Except, of course, when it comes to himself and his shadowy corporation.
After Mae (unbelievably) goes kayaking in the dead of night on the San Francisco Bay and must be rescued via helicopter, Bailey immediately takes credit for saving her life: It was his tiny "See Change" cameras, which are strategically placed all around the world (including buoys in the Bay), that spotted her in distress. Following this incident, Bailey and company COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) manage to persuade Mae to go "fully transparent," which requires her to wear a "See Change" camera 24/7. Soon, her every move is being watched by more than two million online viewers. It's all part of Bailey's plan to convince everyone on Earth to become a member of the Circle.
Mae is alerted to the company's darker ambitions by a mysterious co-worker (an underused John Boyega), the only person there who (seemingly) hasn't drank the Kool-Aid. According to him, participants in the Circle are being secretly studied and monetized by the greedy and power-hungry Bailey. All of which sounds like the setup for a "gripping modern thriller," which is how the press materials refer to the film, and what audiences were implicitly promised by its trailer. Unfortunately, The Circle is never gripping or thrilling, and it's completely lacking in suspense. Director James Ponsoldt -- who also adapted the script with Dave Eggers from Eggers' novel of the same name -- refuses to delve too deeply into the sinister implications of the movie's Orwellian premise. Instead of digging into the Circle's nefarious dealings and fleshing out Bailey's one-note character, Ponsoldt is content to focus on Mae's routine, listless, danger-free life. And he isn't helped any by his miscast leading lady: Watson, so enchanting and vibrant as Belle in Beauty and the Beast, is simply bland here. She never commands the screen, which is especially troubling since she's in every scene. She comes off as sickly sweet and naïve; not the kind of person you want to spend nearly two hours following. As for Hanks, he's given little more to do than deliver rousing, TED-like talks to crowds of enthusiastic sycophants. Also wasted are Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton (in what is sadly his last big-screen appearance) as Mae's loving but concerned parents.
The Circle is somewhat reminiscent of Black Mirror, the anthology TV series about the unexpected consequences of technological change. But whereas Black Mirror is provocative, disturbing, and thought-provoking, The Circle is lame, meandering, and sleep-inducing. It's one circle you're advised not to enter.