The Circle is a 2017 American techno-thriller film directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers, based on Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name. The film stars Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton. The film was the final of Paxton’s career, released just after his February 2017 death, and is also Headly’s penultimate performance too, prior to her death in June 2017.
The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26, 2017, and was theatrically released on April 28, 2017, by STX Entertainment. The film received generally negative reviews and grossed $30 million worldwide, becoming director Ponsoldt’s highest grossing feature.
Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is on her way home when her car breaks down. She contacts an old acquaintance Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who arrives to take a look at the vehicle. Mae tells him that they should get together some time.
The next day while at work Mae gets a call from her friend Annie Allerton (Karen Gillan). Annie works at The Circle, a powerful tech company, and is one of the 40 most influential people in the company. Annie is constantly traveling because of her responsibilities but is surprisingly upbeat despite the stresses of her work. Mae, interested, is interviewed at The Circle and gets a job in Customer Experience, an entry level position that requires her to assist users of The Circle’s products and services. She is constantly rated by the people she assists, and is motivated to keep the score high.
At a company-wide meeting, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) introduces a new initiative called SeeChange. The initiative involves small cameras that can be placed anywhere. Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) gives a speech about the human rights implications of these cameras. The cameras provide real-time video feeds.
During a party on the Circle’s campus, Annie sneaks Mae away from the party and takes her to an office. Annie explains that Mae actually shouldn’t be there, as it is where Eamon and Stenton make the big decisions for the company. After leaving the office, Mae sees an employee away from all of the events, glued to his phone. Mae approaches and begins a conversation. He asks her if she is a guppy, a term used at The Circle for new employees. They carry on a little conversation before he gets a prompt from his phone and tells Mae that he has to go, leaving her a bottle of alcohol.
While home for the weekend, Mae attends a barbecue with her family and friends. Her father, Vinnie Holland (Bill Paxton), has multiple sclerosis and has some difficulty performing normal day tasks without the help of his wife, Bonnie (Glenne Headly). Mae’s parents approve of Mercer and would like if they spent time together. Vinnie asks Mae to grab him a beer from inside their house in an attempt to have them meet. Mae and Mercer discuss his business of making deer antlers into chandeliers. The conversation doesn’t last long, and Mae returns to her parents.
Back at work, two employees come to Mae and ask why she has not updated her Circle profile. They note that she has been gone from the campus all weekend and ask why. While they are careful not to make anything seem mandatory, they appear to want Mae to open up more in her Circle profile and engage fully with the company. Mae tells them about her love of kayaking and her father’s health condition. After the two employees leave, Mae seems more determined to rise up in The Circle by fully embracing all of its social networking tools. At a company presentation, Tom introduces a political candidate who is making all of her communications transparent and visible to those who wish to see them. Tom applauds while explaining how transparency brings accountability. The man from the party is also in the crowd, but in the back. Once the candidate is done talking, he leaves.
During another late night party at The Circle, Mae again sees the man from the party, Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), once again on his phone. She approaches Ty and begins another conversation. Ty then takes her to a restricted area, insisting she tell no one his actions. He shows her an abandoned underground area and tells her that it’s the future of The Circle. He says the plan is to keep all information on everyone in this area. Ty does not seem comfortable with this new direction. Mae becomes embarrassed, as Ty is the creator of True You, a very popular Circle product, and she did not know who he was. He tells her that True You has been morphed into something that he did not intend and that he has taken a back seat at The Circle.
Later, Mae is shown a picture of a chandelier Mercer made by her mother. She takes a picture of it and shares it on her Circle profile. Unbeknownst to her, the image attracts significant negative attention to Mercer from people accusing him of ‘murdering animals’. Mercer, who lives off the technological grid, comes to The Circle and confronts Mae about her sharing the picture. Mae is horrified and asks to go somewhere private when people begin to film the conversation. Despite Mae’s insistence that she didn’t mean to hurt him, Mercer storms off.
Mae goes kayaking at night, and nearly drowns due to fog and darkness preventing her from seeing a ship; she is rescued by the coastguard. The following day Mae is in Eamon and Tom’s office. Eamon explains that SeeChange cameras caught her breaking into the kayak premises and also caught her in the water. It was because of the cameras that she was saved. He then asks her if there is anything she wants to confess, and Mae admits to being in their office previously. Eamon then asks her how it feels to tell the truth, and she says it is liberating. Eamon and Tom then allude to a plan that involves her. At the next meeting, Eamon introduces Mae on stage, and they talk about her experience of being rescued. She expresses the good of transparency, and announces she is the first circler to go ‘completely transparent’. This involves wearing a small camera on her person while awake and therefore exposing her life to everyone in the world. Annie is seen in the audience, appearing exhausted. She looks resentfully at Mae and calls her a natural under her breath.
Being fully transparent turns Mae into a celebrity at The Circle, but begins hurting some of her close relationships. Mae looks for her parents through SeeChange cameras and accidentally sees them having sex. She quickly turns away from the camera, but the damage is done as everyone following her sees in turn. Her parents go off the grid and distance themselves from Mae. When she is finally able to talk to them, they express their love but find being so transparent to be too much.
Mae is invited to a high-level board meeting, Annie seems to resent it as someone so low level is not usually invited. At the meeting, Eamon announces support from all 50 states to allow individuals to vote through Circle accounts. Mae then takes it one step further bringing up the idea of requiring every individual to have a Circle account. Eamon and Tom approve of the suggestion, but it upsets Annie. Annie gets vocal about her disagreement and ends up storming out of the board meeting. At the next company-wide meeting, Mae takes the floor, stating that The Circle believes it can find anyone on the planet in under 20 minutes. She has computer randomly select a criminal at large for Circlers to find; a women who killed her children who escaped prison. Within 10 minutes, Circlers around the world find her through use of social media and the SeeChange cameras. Mae uses this example to show how transparency can be a force for good.
Mae goes on to state that this program can find anyone, not just criminals. After asking the audience for a target, someone suggests Mercer. Mae initially resistant, but the crowd becomes restless. Mae is trying to dissuade the audience, and Tom convinces her to continue, asking if they can break their record of 10 minutes. People eventually find Mercer in a cabin. Multiple people surround his cabin and begin demanding why he is an animal killer. Mercer escapes in his truck from the people tracking him, the chase viewed by Mae and the rest through real-time cameras. One of the watching drones startles him, causing him to drive off a bridge, killing him. Mae, horrified at what she caused to happen, takes a leave from The Circle and total transparency. She moves back in with her parents to mourn and cope. She calls Annie, who has left The Circle as well to her apparent benefit. Mae, however, finds that her connection with others is what is helping her cope with Mercer’s death.
Mae returns to the Circle, despite her parents’ pleas. Mae calls Ty and asks for a favor, while Ty tells her something that he has discovered. At the next company-wide meeting, Mae expresses how connection has helped her recover. As she speaks with Eamon, she invites Tom onstage, though he appears wary. Mae invites both Eamon and Tom to go fully transparent. She explains how Ty has found all their accounts, even the accounts that their wives were unaware of, and exposes them as no one should be exempt. Eamon and Tom, clearly upset, try to save face before Tom leaves the stage.
Mae reiterates her point of transparency being good, to the support of the audience. Mae goes kayaking again, embracing and unbothered by the drones that surround her.
Directed by James Ponsoldt
Based on The Circle
by Dave Eggers
Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography Matthew Libatique
Edited by Lisa Lassek
Image Nation Abu Dhabi
Distributed by STX Entertainment
April 26, 2017 (Tribeca)
April 28, 2017 (United States)
Country United States
Budget $18 million
Box office $30.1 million