The Circle is the paranoid techno-dystopian thriller of 2006 released in 2017 and based on a Dave Eggers novel published in 2013. The film’s concerns about technology and social media are so dated and quaint, like the stuff an older relative might mention during Thanksgiving dinner. (“Hubert, do you realize they have these small wristwatches that monitor your heartbeat? Your heartbeat, Hubert! Your heartbeat!” “Yeah, Uncle Bill. Pass the potatoes, please.”)
That may say a lot about the world we’re living in now, and sure, the film has some legitimate concerns about our loss of privacy and our willingness to exchange freedom for convenience. But we’ve talked so far past The Circle in the last decade that its legitimate critiques of entities like Facebook and Google feel a generation behind. (“I think people are just using social media to project a front of happiness, Hubert. They might not really be happy.” “Yeah, that’s true, Uncle Bill. The stuffing you brought is great.” “Oh, thank you, I used sausage and parsnips.”)
But beyond its dated concerns, The Circle is just incompetently written, directed, and structured, which is such a waste of its cast and their talents.
Director: John Ponsoldt
Release Date: April 28, 2017
Mae Holland (Emma Watson) lucks into a customer support job at The Circle, a Bay Area tech giant. The company has a sprawling campus full of cush employee amenities, much like the many corporate-capitalist Xanadus that dot the Silicon Valley. They’re so flush with cash and a belief in work-as-play that they hire Beck to play a show on campus, which really does make this feel like a technological thriller from 2006. Jeez, guys, was Haim busy or something? (“They also have cooks for their employees, Hubert!” “Yeah, I know. More gravy, Uncle Bill?”)
Silicon Valley did it better.
The company’s co-founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), is a mix of Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and a benevolent dictator. He uses utopian-sounding names to introduce dystopian technological innovations. While the dialogue may be wooden, the screenplay at least has an ear for the grammar of corporate-ese. The new Circle innovation is SeeChange, which basically means putting GoPros on everything. Mae buys into the corporate culture quickly, becomes a model employee, and some other stuff happens that leads to a pseudo Truman Show redux (Truman Show Vista) with live tweets.
Black Mirror did it better.
The Circle‘s a bit all over the place, with ludicrous stuff happening just because. For instance, Mae goes kayaking without a life jacket in the middle of the night in San Francisco Bay to… I honestly don’t know. To clear her head? Beats me. Most seasoned kayakers would choose a less foggy place to go at night if they wanted to clear their heads. Kayakers would probably just go for a walk, come to think of it.
John Boyega’s character seems like Mae’s love interest. Well, no. He’s only got ten lines in the entire movie and doesn’t really do anything except offer a bottle of white wine, show Mae some servers, and help obtain some info for the final act. The end. The film seems to set him up as a Circle employee gone rogue, a square peg who doesn’t buy into the corporate speak and who stands outside the system possibly to undermine it. The higher ups are smart enough to keep tabs on everyone else in the company except for the guy who doesn’t really hang out with everyone else in the company. It’s like if The Village from The Prisoner decided to leave Number Six alone. (“Oh, that’s a reference I get!” “Yeah, Uncle Bill. I thought you would.” “Pass the asparagus.”)
Director and co-writer James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) feels oddly out of his depth with this film. He can’t pin down the tone or build out a sustained mood, with scenes unfolding flatly, one after another as if joined by a series of monotonous and-then’s. For a paranoid thriller, the film seems almost chipper about being monitored at all times. Scenes breeze by to convey exposition, carry the plot forward, and nothing more. The Circle feels so weightless and rushed and empty, peopled with vessels for plot and decade-old critiques of the modern world.
Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood fumbles through a role as one of Mae’s old friends. An unplugged luddite, he’s angry that she buys into the Circle culture wholeheartedly. She used to do fun things and real stuff, like, man! He comes back in a pivotal scene later in the film that would be a nightmarish indictment of our loss of privacy if it wasn’t also an absurd slapstick pursuit in the Benny Hill mode. (“I love Benny Hill.” “I know you do, Uncle Bill.”)
I can’t really blame the cast for this debacle. Not even Hanks can elevate this material. He was affable enough in last year’s middling Dave Eggers adaptation A Hologram for the King (aka Eat, Pray, Love, Sell IT Solutions), but that only gets a movie so far. I’m not sure I bought America’s Dad as Big Brotherberg. Watson can’t carry a film with a flimsy character written like she just fell off the turnip truck; in a lot of ways Karen Gillan’s overworked supporting character Annie makes for a more compelling protagonist. (“Turnips! We left your Aunt Sandra’s turnip green salad on the kitchen counter!” “Oh, we sure did, Uncle Bill. Gosh. Let me get that in a sec, I’m almost done here.”) The Circle is like a bad tech startup. There’s talent behind it, a pitch with potential, but there’s nothing there except buzzwords and BS.
Behold: Cinematic Juicero.