Director: James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour)
Novel: Dave Eggers
Screenplay: James Ponsoldt, Dave Eggers
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Gary Goetzman
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 110 min.
After breaking out with his 2012 alcoholism indie drama Smashed, director James Ponsoldt has seen each of his subsequent films raise him to a new height, first with The Spectacular Now and then with the masterful The End of the Tour. It was inevitable that after building his name on these very low-key, intimate character dramas, Ponsoldt would eventually want to attempt an elevation into new territory, and that’s where he found himself with the prescient tech thriller The Circle, based on Dave Eggers’ acclaimed novel, for which Eggers and Ponsoldt collaborated on the screenplay. Unfortunately, this is a case where we see that while a filmmaker can do marvels in one area, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be a proper fit for another.
Following intrepid young rookie Mae Holland (Emma Watson) as she finds herself inducted into the hive headquarters of Apple-like tech conglomerate The Circle (with a Google-esque dual housing/work facility that its workers, known as Circlers, never seem to leave), Ponsoldt’s film begins by charting an incredibly familiar and shallow trajectory that we’ve seen in plenty of tales of tech terror like 1984 and Eagle Eye. Basically, The Circle is getting closer and closer to a kind of all-seeing, all-knowing dominion over the world where everyone is connected and no one has any privacy. Because somehow despite everything we’ve seen telling us how bad of an idea this is, apparently that’s still where we’re headed according to the movies. When the Steve Jobs type figure Eamon Bailey (a shrewdly cast Tom Hanks, subverting his America’s Dad image to play baddie for a change) introduces a new camera the size of a small marble that can be placed anywhere and sees everything, giving The Circle access to the daily lives of everyone across the planet, we all know where this is headed. Technology is good, until it becomes bad. The bad guys, including The Circle’s COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) want to rule the world by taking away the privacy of everyone under their iron fist, but of course their most important meetings all happen behind closed doors.
Initially feeling some hesitation towards the happy wonderland of The Circle where everyone kills with kindness, Mae slowly finds herself becoming indoctrinated to their ways (the second movie this year where Emma Watson falls victim to Stockholm Syndrome?), eventually going so far as to agree to let her life be filmed 24/7 and broadcast to the world, going “fully transparent”, as she coins it, in one of the many cheesy sell lines the movie gives its characters to shill out. This is where the movie goes in a slightly different path from the usual throughline of these tech thrillers, but instead of rising above the grain it takes this opportunity to drastically fall flat on its face. What follows is a series of increasingly insane events that take suspension of disbelief to impossible extremes and leave you stupefied wondering when this stopped becoming a film that aimed for a prescient vision of where our reliance on technology was headed and became a corny after school special from the ’80s warning us of a future that’s never going to happen.
Watson tries her best to make this character work, but the arc that Eggers and Ponsoldt give her simply defies any sense of logic, which is even more frustrating considering the fact that the movie seems to be framing her as some kind of mythic figure whose supreme intelligence is out to beat the evil conglomerate at their own game. Yet so many decisions she makes are unbelievably dumb, from the fact that she ignores all of the giant red flags shouting at her to run screaming away from The Circle from the second she gets there to the film’s baffling finale that’s supposed to be a jaw-dropper but only succeeds in leaving you stunned in all of the wrong ways. These basic flaws of character and story are at the heart of The Circle and derail it from its very foundation, but to focus solely on them would be a disservice to the many, many elements of The Circle that are going to puzzle audiences for decades to come.
There’s basically a treasure trove of Bad Ideas here that would take a team of the world’s best scientists to figure out how so many talented minds actually let make it into this film. Why does renowned recording artist Beck show up as himself, playing a live concert in the middle of a party at The Circle’s housing campus? You can practically hear the pain in Watson’s voice as she awkwardly tries to deliver the line, “Oh my god, is that Beck?”, without it sounding like the world’s weirdest plug. Why does Bill Paxton’s final performance, playing Mae’s father who is afflicted with MS, have to suffer from a scene where Mae, and the millions of viewers watching her every move as she’s “fully transparent” at this stage, witnesses her mother jerking him off with a penis pump? What did John Boyega and Karen Gillan do to deserve having their potentially interesting characters cut off at the knees by having either no development at all for Boyega, or an insane leap in development for Gillan that makes you feel like a good half hour was cut out of the middle of the film showing her whole arc? Why does every film purporting to be about living in the digital age feel the need to flood the screen with obnoxious text screens?
The Circle takes this practice to overload levels, which is admittedly the point they’re making in that the digital screens overwhelm real life, but serving their point sacrifices the audience’s ability to pay attention to anything that’s actually happening because their eyes are too busy being distracted by all of the other stuff happening on the screen. Although maybe drawing attention away from the terrible story is a good thing for them. The Circle’s very silly tagline is “Knowing is good. Knowing everything is better.”, which is also one of Eamon’s key phrases that he recites to his crowd of worshipers (although nothing beats the Power Point presentation highlighting Mae’s catchphrase “Secrets are lies”). Watching The Circle will leave you with a whole lot of questions as to how a movie this dumb could have come from people this smart, but perhaps in this case knowing everything actually wouldn’t be better for anyone.