The Circle. Released: April 28, 2017. Directed by: James Ponsoldt. Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega. Runtime: 1h 50 min.
The Circle is a familiar and generic corporate thriller about the dark side of technology, but it’s disappointing because it doesn’t go into enough depth.
Mae (Emma Watson) gets a dream job as part of the customer experience team at a tech company called the Circle which creates one single online identity for users. The work environment looks a lot like Google, which seems obsolete in this near future (we never get a specific year). The campus itself is in the shape of a circle – obviously to remind workers they’re working at the Circle, not the Pentagon. Eventually Mae uncovers a nefarious agenda, but she takes awhile to get to that.
The Circle’s world is working towards transparency, where you can’t have moments alone or private conversations. Everything you do is public and there are cameras everywhere. It’s like everyone’s a celebrity and there are paparazzi at every turn. The lack of privacy is also like the Edward Snowden conspiracy of the government watching, but taken to an extreme and it becomes far-fetched.
It’s a generic sci-fi thriller with an intriguing high-concept. The writing never creates compelling dialogue and its attempts at suspense are predictable. Its themes of the importance of privacy it tries to depict don’t feel significant enough, and the film generally places concept above any substance or in-depth character development.
The Circle itself is led by charismatic CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who’s like Steve Jobs if he were a social media obsessed cult leader. The Circle feels like a cult, especially when people think it’s weird Mae hasn’t connected her social media accounts to the Circle after her first week.
It’s a weird scene as Renata (Ellen Wong) and Matt (Amir Talai) tell her that she’s an enigma because people across campus don’t know her. They question why she wasn’t here on the weekend doing activities, and when she says she went kayaking they’re surprised because that’s not on her social media. Matt says, “I love kayaking. We could have gone together.” It’s awkward, drawn-out scenes like these that show everyone’s super weird.
Mae’s initially a breath of fresh air because she likes privacy and she’s a cute little guppy (what newbies are called at the Circle), but she soon gets eaten by the weird piranhas. Like the rest of them – she drank the damn Kool-Aid.
The Circle has a high-tech allure, but it’s not convincing when Mae willingly gives up her privacy because of a dumb reason. Emma Watson’s great as Mae, but if it any other actress were playing her, she wouldn’t get much sympathy or have the same kind-of magnetism. She commands a crowd in public speaking and brings a natural charisma. Mae isn’t well-developed, and at times it feels like the only thing we know about her is that she likes kayaking when things get too hard.
The only time I cared about anything happening is because I feel like it affected Emma Watson. She’s a great actress, even when she plays a poorly developed character whose motivations are hard to understand. It’s surprising the film manages to create such a good cast, but doesn’t rise to the occasion in any other aspect.
Tom Hanks is fine as Bailey, even though he’s a generic CEO wanting to change the world. He gets less screen time than one might expect. Patton Oswalt is more generic as the company’s Chief Officer of Operations, Tom Stenton.
John Boyega gets a disappointing amount of screen time as his character, but he’s fine when he’s there. Bill Paxton plays Mae’s father with MS in his last theatrical film. His character is a reason Mae is more developed than most, since she wants to help him get better. Karen Gillan’s a good surprise as Annie, too, and she gets to her use her natural Scottish accent here.
I must talk about Mercer. His sub-plot about making deer antler chandeliers and Mae’s parents trying to play matchmaker for him and Mae is silly. His character could be written out entirely and wouldn’t be missed. He’s played by Ellar Coltrane, the kid who grew up in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. He plays an everyday worker man who likes privacy, and Coltrane looks incredibly uncomfortable on-screen. He’s so bad and awkward, and it reminds me of how uncomfortable Kristen Stewart looks in the Twilight films.
Director James Ponsoldt doesn’t bring any charm from The Spectacular Now. He and Dave Eggers co-write a screenplay based on Eggers’ own novel that’s a mess. The Circle’s plot wanders around aimlessly and doesn’t find a coherent storyline. It’s like Ponsoldt and Eggers played Hide ‘n Seek with a good story, couldn’t find one, and gave up.