A film review by Craig J. Koban May 12, 2017


2017, PG-13, 115 mins.


Emma Watson as Mae Holland  /  Tom Hanks as Eamon Bailey  /  John Boyega as Kalden  /  Karen Gillan as Annie Allerton  /  Ellar Coltrane as Mercer Medeiros  /  Patton Oswalt as Tom Stenton  /  Bill Paxton as Mae's Father  /  Glenne Headly as Mae's Mother  /  Poorna Jagannathan as Dr. Jessica Villalobos  /  Ellen Wong as Renata  /  Nate Corddry as Dan

Directed by James Ponsoldt  /  Written by Dave Eggers, based on his book



THE CIRCLE is a very dumb movie about some very smart ideas and themes.  

What makes the experience of watching it all the more frustrating and disappointing is that there's real talent both in front of and behind the camera. 

Based on the 2013 cautionary tech thriller novel of the same name by David Eggers, this film adaptation is directed by James Ponsoldt, whom previously made one of the of the best coming of age romance dramas of recent memory in the criminally under-seen THE SPECTACULAR NOW.  THE CIRCLE also features Tom Hanks as producer and co-star, someone who hardly needs any introduction.  Considering the bounty of creative riches this film has at its disposal and subject matter that's highly relevant and topical, THE CIRCLE has no business being as much of an undisciplined mess as it is. 

That's not to say that this film is not compulsively intriguing as a thought provoking what-if piece of speculative sci-fiIt crafts a potentially enthralling narrative about the inherent dangers of privacy - and a lack thereof - in an increasingly omnipresent social media world that demands second-by-second updates.  On purely Orwellian levels, THE CIRCLE dives into the ramifications of an aggressively vigorous surveillance age and what that fundamentally does to people that frankly have no idea how to keep their private lives...private.   There's an inherent level of creepiness to the material that should strike an immediate chord with audience members, but meandering and bewildering scripting, uneven pacing, and some ridiculous third act developments hurts the overall effectiveness of THE CIRCLE. 



The movie's title refers to a massive tech company (think Google morphed with Apple), whose higher ups are hoping will lead a revolutionary change in how social media changes how we view the world.  One of its newest recruits is Mae (Emma Watson), who has suffered through a previous demeaning call center job to nab her dream profession at The Circle.  After an extraordinarily odd interview process (one of the film's few noteworthy highlights), Mae finds herself acclimatizing to her new work environment (although the script is somewhat vague as to what she precisely does as a customer service representative).  Early on she can't help but notice how seemingly all of The Circle's workers have drank the corporate Kool-Aid and worship their bosses like rock stars.  The CEO, Eamon Bailey (Hanks), displays a Steve Jobs-ian level of charisma at many of his frequent company wide meetings.  That, and he seems like he genuinely wants to get the best out of his employees to take his company to the next level. 

Mae soon begins to adore her Circle work lifestyle, which comes off like some sort of hipster Valhalla.  She eventually finds herself in Eamon's inner circle, during which time he politely requests that she participates - at her own choice and discretion  - in an audacious new social experiment.  Quite simply, she is to wear a small quarter-sized camera on her lapel 24/7 - dubbed "SeeChange" - that will stream her daily comings and goings to everyone...everywhere.  Eamon's dream is to have everyone on the planet wearing one of these devices, which he hopes will have many tangible benefits (like, for example, being able to pinpoint the location of criminals on the run and helping authorities capture them before they strike again).  Mae seems more than eager to be Eamon's guinea pig, but the more she broadcasts every minute detail of her life - and the more The Circle's real motives are revealed with their newfangled tech - the more she begins to have doubts that her employer's ethics are sound. 

Again, THE CIRCLE crafts a yarn about the inherent perils of Big Brother run amok that, initially at least, serves as an extremely fascinating hook.  There's something inherently sinister about an outwardly congenial tech corporation that's secretly a vile and self-serving media empire that's trying to take over all facets of the world...and all while using their hopelessly naive employees that are completely oblivious.  The SeeChange tech itself and the motives behind it have some legitimately noble minded imperatives (if these cameras were indeed everywhere on the planet at any given time...then truly monstrous people would technically have no where to hide).  Yet, the ultimate cost of the widespread surveillance hardware is the utter erosion of one's privacy, which, as Mae finds out, has more negative outcomes than positive ones, especially when it comes to protecting the very people she holds dear in life.   

All of this is fascinating stuff, but THE CIRCLE is totally undermined by laughably inept storytelling that's borderline cartoony and ham-invested at times.  The film's themes are frequently driven home with the subtlety of a flying mallet, which features multiple characters pontificating on them to the point of obviousness; there's way, way too much sermonizing going on in THE CIRCLE.  That, at the overall story never seems to find its footing as it careens around from one incongruent plot beat to the next.  Take the arc involving Mae's father (played decently by the late Bill Paxton, in one of his last silver screen roles), who has crippling MS.  Mae discovers that The Circle will provide complete health care benefits to him that were once incalculably inexpensive, but the manner with which the script uses this father and his condition purely as a mechanical plot point to help provide for future conflict in the story is kind of shamefully unnecessary.   

Other characters are conveniently shoe-horned into the story whenever it's required.  Take Ty (John Boyega), a monumentally disposable character without much character that's lazily thrown in as a Circler that has uncovered secrets that could bring the whole corporation down on its knees.  Boyega shows up in the film, disappears, and then re-appears later when it fits the needs of the plot.  Then there's a friend of Mae's (Ellar Coltrane from BOYHOOD) that's enormously afraid of social media in all of its various forms (gee, I wonder if his life will be inadvertently decimated by Mae's SeeChange experiment?).  Yet another character, Annie (Karen Gillan), is Mae's BFF that was instrumental in getting her the job at The Circle.  She becomes unhealthily deranged when Mae gets close with the Eamon, which the film never really plausibly rationalizes.  Character dynamics in THE CIRCLE are all over the map and shallowly rendered. 

Tom Hanks gets top billing in this film - rather inexplicably, considering that he's only in it for a handful of scenes - and although it's a nice change of pace to see the everyman movie hero play a billionaire villain, the novelty of that is undone because his CEO is a poorly defined antagonist (Hanks is reliably stalwart in the role, but is never given much to work with here to flex his thespian muscles).  The biggest performance and casting casualty is Emma Watson, who never seems to dive into the inherent contradictions of her flawed main character and make them feel credible.  As the film progresses she becomes more exponentially irritating because she makes stupid decisions that a smart character like her would never make it real life.  Watson has an easygoing charm on camera, to be sure, but she's awfully stilted and wooden in THE CIRCLE; caring and rooting for Mae as a heroine becomes impossibly difficult. 

And don't even get me started on this film's cockamamie climax, which, for lack of a better description, is ape shit crazy and strains modest credulity.  THE CIRCLE is a film that begins with strong promise, but then egregiously never pays off for viewers.  I liked the film's underlining ideas of the dangers of technology and how that subverts our most cherished and guarded of civil liberties, but the execution of said ideas is aimlessly sloppy and amateurish.  Many intelligent people had a hand in making THE CIRCLE a timely parable of our times, but intelligence is so AWOL in the final product that the material feels stilted and dated in approach. 


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