REVIEW: ‘The Circle’ delivers a loud warning about social media, Internet

But is it family-friendly?

April 28th, 2017 / By: Michael Foust / comments

REVIEW: ‘The Circle’ delivers a loud warning about social media, Internet

Mae is a young and enthusiastic techie who wants nothing more than to work at the Circle—the most well-known (and hippest) technology company in the world.

When she finally lands her dream job, though, she discovers that everything is not as rosy as she envisioned.

Shortly after Mae’s first day on the job, CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) introduces to the public a new marble-sized “See Change” camera, which can deliver HD video and audio, weather reports and facial recognition instantly. With the push of a button, any location on Earth—meaning any person, too—can be viewed on a computer screen.

The company’s stated goal is to place these tiny cameras all over the world to stop “tyrants and terrorists,” yet Mae (Emma Watson) is having her doubts.

But a kayaking accident—when she nearly drowns, only to be saved because hidden cameras were monitoring her safety—changes her mind. She had stolen that kayak and begins wondering: Would I have committed the crime if I had known I was being watched?

“Secrets are what make crimes possible,” she tells an audience of Circle employees.

So, she voluntarily begins wearing a See Change camera 24 hours a day—minus bathroom breaks—and attracts an online audience of 10 million people who watch her every move. Soon, she’s making the case for the technology’s expansion. All in the name of safety and the greater good, of course.

The Circle (PG-13) opens in theaters this weekend, delivering a science fiction tale about a technology-crazed culture that sees nothing wrong with placing cameras everywhere and broadcasting a person’s private life to the entire world. The new technology even replaces one-one-one relationships. (Sound familiar?) The film is based on a 2013 novel of the same name by author Dave Eggers.

One of the more thought-provoking and entertaining films of the year, The Circle provides a series of warnings that all of us should consider. It’s more like a science fiction parable, a modern-day 1984.

A debate about surveillance, whether from the government or from big corporations, is certainly warranted. Each technology that the Circle proposes, we’re told, has a utilitarian use: If everyone wears cameras, then people in wheelchairs will know what it’s like to—for example—climb mountains and sail the seas. We’ll also build a closer-knit community! And if those images of billions of people were placed in a database, then we could find fugitives and troubled, lonely people! Still, we must ask: What are we losing? For one thing, privacy and freedom. For another thing, solitude (Psalm 46:10).

Yet I walked away contemplating something more significant: how the people in The Circle—and the people in our own society—elevate technology to a god-like status. That’s what Hanks’ character does. “I am a believer in the perfectibility of human beings,” he says, asserting that if people simply combine their knowledge (with the help of technology), they can achieve their potential and “cure any disease.” Thankfully, a handful of people do see the problems with the technology, but most don’t. [See Worldview for a more detailed discussion.]

So, is this one family-friendly? Let’s quickly examine the details …

Warning: slight spoilers ahead

The Good

Mae initially lives with her parents, and her close relationship with them stands out. Her love for her father, who has multiple sclerosis, is particularly touching. Her parents end up being some of the biggest heroes.

The film also promotes the idea of sacrifice and standing up to evil, but I found the ending slightly unsatisfying. Mae and a Circle co-founder, Ty (John Boyega, The Force Awakens), team up to discover what Hanks’ character is truly doing.

There’s also a strong anti-bullying message.

The Bad

Except for an automobile crash this one is mostly violence-free, although there are a handful of language problems and one split-second bedroom scene.

I counted 16 coarse words: sh-- (9), OMG (2), a-- (2), JC (2), f-word (1).

No one kisses in this film, but Mae, when looking at different camera angles, accidentally sees her parents in an intimate bedroom encounter. (The mom is wearing a shirt and there is no nudity, but it’s obvious what is happening.) It lasts perhaps one second.

Young adults also drink alcohol at a party.

Spiritual Content

“Thank God” is said (in a sincere way) three times, and Mae states how “grateful” she is for the job. But later, she says she was “lucky” to get it.

The Worldview

What are we missing with our addiction to technology? Perhaps it’s the same thing Mae and her friends are missing. God. Family. Nature. Simplicity. They stare at phones and tablets all day, too, uploading an update on each “happy” thing that happens. I suspect we’d be embarrassed if God showed us a weekly total of the hours spent on the Internet and social media compared to the hours spent with Him. For too many, technology has become a god.

Finally, Mae’s desire to be monitored needs critique. No doubt, we would be less likely to sin if we were on camera, but as Christians, we know that an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-present and loving God is watching us at all times. Camera or no camera.

Family-Friendly?

Young kids probably would be confused and bored in this one, even if the language didn’t bother the parents. I’d leave the children at home.

Discussion Questions

1. In what ways is social media a good thing? A bad thing?

2. Which technology is abused most in our culture?

3. Would you support more cameras in public areas? Why or why not?

4. Would you sin less if someone was watching your every move? How does your answer square with God’s omnipotence, omniscience and omni-presence?

5. What did you think of the proposal for automatic voter registration and mandatory voting?

6. Did you like the ending? Why or why not?   

Entertainment rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars. 

‘The Circle’ is rated PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use.