Let’s go back in time for a moment, to the halcyon days of the mid-1990s, when AOL, floppy disks, and dial-up modems were a thing. A sub-genre of films has emerged based around the implications of a new technology called the World Wide Web, one of the most prominent of those being The Net. Besides being the film that Sandra Bullock would like you to forget (no, the other one), it’s a pulpy, endearingly messy, overheated thriller that’s as ridiculous as it is watchable. Fast forward 20 years, and we find that the cyber-thriller has evolved. There is no longer a need for action, drama, charm, or truly anything that makes a film seem organic and alive. It is in this bleak, dystopian cinematic landscape that we encounter The Circle.
Our everyday protagonist is Mae (Emma Watson), an everyday girl with an everyday life until she scores a job at The Circle, a ubiquitous social media network/technology firm. Mae’s able to get in thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), who conveniently happens to be part of The Circle’s “Gang Of 40” inner sanctum along with co-founders Tom Stenton (an embarrassed Patton Oswalt) and Eamon Bailey (a monochromatic Tom Hanks). Before too long, Mae has chugged The Circle’s electric Kool-Aid and gone “transparent”, live-streaming every moment of her waking existence to a worldwide audience. Before too much longer than that though, Mae begins to become aware of the full implications of The Circle’s quest for connectivity and openness, and then something something sinister music cue.
She’s just as confused as you are, folks.
Based on the novel by Dave Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with director James Ponsoldt, The Circle is an inconsistent, formless, tedious slog of a film that clearly thinks it’s a Very Important Movie with a Very Important Message. But the creators are so devoted to that message that they forgot to make a proper film around it. It’s a pretentious, two-hour TED Talk with a cinematographer, a shockingly-anonymous Danny Elfman soundtrack, and a speaker who clearly doesn’t want to be there.
The film starts off promisingly enough, with a quick-cut montage of Mae’s pre-Circle life. She temps in a thankless customer service phone bank, has meet-cutes with her quasi-luddite friend Mercer (a shaggy and lackadaisical Ellar Coltrane), and helps tend to her multiple sclerosis-afflicted father (Bill Paxton in his final film role). Once Mae enters The Circle, however, that jumpy and infectious energy vanishes completely, replaced by languorous, workmanlike scenes that don’t bother with silly things like tension, character, or structure.
And don’t get me started on their grasp of the Aristotelian Unities.
Ponsoldt and Eggers seem woefully unqualified to make the film that they did. They seem to have no grasp on how social media actually operates or how it grows, instead extrapolating nightmare scenarios that start with a basis in reality and quickly spin into absurdity and nonsense. The film’s first real action scene, a late-night kayaking that nearly ends in disaster, is filmed with a complete lack of framing, lighting, and choreography, amounting to two full minutes of visual grey noise. Barely a single character talks like an actual human, coming off more like buggy AIs created by a fancy new app designed to take the burden of creativity off of the writer. It’s possible that this was meant as a satire of how we project ourselves online, but Ponsoldt and Eggers never full commit to the idea.
The only documented invocation of Chekov’s Kayak.
In fact, the most maddening things about The Circle are its complete lack of consistency and inability to commit to a mood or a theme. Social media is bad, except when it isn’t. Mae is a clever girl, except when she’s being rock stupid. Bailey and Benton are either misguided altruists or power-hungry manipulators depending on the scene. A mysterious programmer played by a sleep-walking John Boyega is positioned as Mae’s love interest, except then he isn’t, and he’s made to look like a complex character when he’s just a walking deus ex machina. Plot points, characters, and even stylistic choices are dropped at random with no explanation and no ceremony. An admittedly amusing touch where flashing comments from Mae’s live-stream work as a kind of Greek chorus is abandoned as soon as it starts becoming interesting.
That same lack of commitment filters over to nearly every performance, with virtually the entire cast giving performances so lacking in color and life that they might as well be mannequins. It’s like a cold table read that became the final cut. Hanks and Oswalt clearly have no personal investment in their roles, both seemingly a step away from reading cue cards, with neither one exhibiting more than one facial expression for the entire film (manufactured amiability for Hanks, constipated scowling for Oswalt). Emma Watson approaches her role as if she’s fully aware that she wasn’t the first choice for it, her winsome appeal buried by a script so unwieldy that it wasn’t typed as much as it was burned onto wooden slabs. Mae has no personality, no perceivable inner monologue, and absolutely no motivation beyond what the story requires.
Even a stopped face is right twice a film.
The only bright spot among the cast is Karen Gillan, giving a performance far more devoted than the film deserves. Annie is an over-caffeinated, overachieving go-getter whose life slowly falls apart as the Circle works her to death and she watches her friend leapfrog up the social ladder. No reason ever appears to explain how and why Annie and Mae are friends at all. Watson doesn’t even try to sell the relationship, leaving all of the heavy lifting to Gillan, who just barely succeeds. Annie’s story seems far more interesting and dramatic than Mae’s, but the film is so singularly focused on Mae that we only get to see frustratingly brief glimpses of Annie’s character arc.
The Circle is officially categorized as a sci-fi thriller, but it is demonstrably neither of those things. While it focuses on the implications of technology, it approaches the subject with such obtuse simplicity that to call it science fiction seems like an insult to the genre. While it teases the audience with hints of conflict and tension, it never even tries to rise to the definition of thrilling. The clunky techno-thrillers of the 90s might be dated and ridiculous to modern viewers, but at least they had a sense of danger, fun, and creativity. But even after 20 years of technological and cinematic advances, The Circle is as flat, two-dimensional, and generic as the shape that gives the film its title.
FBOTU Score: 2 out of 10 / D-