James Ponsoldt’s The Circle is about what it’s about, and that’s it. Some movies can do that, action movies, popcorn movies, and the like. Yet, I find it helpful to bring up the old Roger Ebert quote, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.”
The Circle is a cyber-thriller without any thrills. It’s a collectivist response to Ayn Rand’s “Who Is John Galt?” It seems at all times confused in what it wants to accomplish and more importantly dumbfounded by what it wants us to feel or think.
Mae (Emma Watson) is a young woman who’s adrift in life. She’s a drone in the billing department at the water department. Except we see her do one call and she seems quite pleasant, and the person she’s calling seems to totally understand. Never mind the fiction of any type of bill collecting for any kind of organization, especially, a public one, being pleasant for both parties involved. It’s hard to feel for Mae when all we see is her having an awkward time at her job.
Ponsoldt wastes little time getting Mae to the Circle. The problem is by wasting so little time he manages to waste the next hour or so. We’re never allowed to get a sense of Mae, who she is or why she feels so lost. So when her best friend Annie (Karen Gillian) has gotten Mae, an interview at The Circle, we’re left wondering why she’s so excited.
The movie tries in vain to show us how addicted Mae is to modern tech. There are shots of her texting but, not while driving, and almost always in between things. When her car breaks down, she calls an old friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) and texts while she waits for him to arrive. It’s made painfully clear Mercer and Mae’s family, are suspicious of technology, in that quaint gentle manner that good country folk so often exude in the movies. I have to admire the movie’s restraint and not having Mae’s parents utter the phrase “Aw, shucks.”
Eye rolling and horse shit ridden painfully obvious metaphors aside we know more about Mercer than Mae herself. Her parents, played by Glenne Headly and Bill Paxton, seem more fleshed out than Mae does. This is not because of the script, but because of the immense talent and competence of Paxton and Headly.
The Circle is a thinly veiled homage to Google, of 2012. Late in the film, the president of The Circle, Bailey (Tom Hanks) postulates the idea of self-driving cars. Something Google is already working on and well on it’s way to implementing. Most of the technological ‘advances’ in the movie seem less ‘Holy Cow!’ and more ‘I had that on my phone three years ago.’
When Hollywood makes movies about technology, there’s always a secret hope that it will achieve the dizzying heights of paranoia and wild misinformation that was 1992’s The Net. A movie that prophesied identity theft, not as some hacker stealing your facebook account info, but your entire existence. Oh, and there was a thing about ordering pizza online, it was nuts.
The Circle doesn’t hold a candle to The Net. For many, many, many, many reasons. Least of all it because it behaves as a cinematic sermon on the mount that’s baffled by what it’s trying to preach as opposed to a campy hysterical pulpy reaction to a new technology.
It’s like this: Mae gets the job. Of course, no shock there. Mae then proceeds to do basically the same thing she did at the water department, customer service. She then manages to, almost by accident, stumble her way up the hierarchy. She’s tapped by Bailey and Stenton (Patton Oswalt) to try out a new phase of The Circle, ‘Full Transparency.’ Mae’s whole life is downloaded onto the Circle server, she is fitted with a body cam, and she basically becomes a walking talking social media post.
No one at the circle seems bothered by this though. No one stands up; no one starts a guerilla protest. If this were a fable, I could understand, but this is supposed to be a reality, and there is always a contrarian in the group who has no problem having their voice heard. That’s how it goes. With each new ‘transparent’ step by the Circle, Mae is more and more eager to be its champion. Even when one of her own idea’s “SoulSearch” is implemented and leads to a disastrous and oddly anti-climatic conclusion, Mae never gives up on the Circle.
Yet the entire movie is predicated on the idea that there is something evil going on at the Circle. Mae even meets the inventor of the program for the Circle, Ty (John Boyega). The lone voice of suspicion in the movie belongs to him. But he’s black, so he’s relegated to exposition and broad dire warnings and shuttled off screen unless needed for a random reaction shot.
So we have a clearly implied evil organization with a hero who has a blinding allegiance to it and believes its innate goodness. This could be interesting. At one point Mae proposes the Circle automatically register people to vote when they sign up for their services. She then goes one step further and suggests people be required by law to have a Circle account, so to have a hundred percent participation levels.
Annie calls ‘B.S.” and storms out of the meeting. Whew. So there are two voices of dissent now. This is the extent of debate the movie has. Everyone and I mean everyone just nods their heads. At no point is even a glimmer of any kind of ethical or governmental consequence of making voting legally mandatory. We hear half lines of dialogue, off screen, about how the Circle is being investigated for Antitrust violations. Here again, there’s no discussion about anything as basic as the relationship between business and government.
If all of this sounds dull try watching it on the big screen, it’s even worse. Emma Watson as Mae is shockingly bland and flat. The script is MIA, so it might just be she has no clear idea what her motivation is because the filmmakers don’t either. Tom Hanks is great because he’s Tom Hanks. His amiable laugh and gregarious smile hides a portent of something sinister and plotting. It’s a shame the movie never lets him unleash it or even talk about it.
This movie is nothing but hints. When Ty tells Mae he’s hacked into the Bailey and Stenton’s private accounts he’s shocked to see what’s hidden there we’ll be left wondering what it might be. At the climax of the movie Mae forces Bailey and Stenton into ‘full transparency’ with her. “We’re fucked.” Bailey muses to Stenton. Do you know why? Neither do I, the movie never tells us what deep dark secrets, or world domination agenda, these two are hiding. It just says there is some shady stuff here and then Mae leads the group like a pied piper outside.
All of this could have been fun if it was even remotely about anything else. It’s not. Relationships don’t matter. Character’s beliefs and opinions don’t matter. All that matters is that the Circle is up to something and that’s creepy. Eggers adapted his book with Ponsoldt, and they took what apparently was a fable and made into a grounded, real world story. The fable would’ve worked better. We allow broader storytelling strokes in fables, less needs to be explained.
Ponsoldt always manages to put the camera so the actors are in focus, and that’s about it. Film is about images. Images should tell a story or give us a hint about a character or an idea, or emotion, or something. For a movie called The Circle, I was shocked and disappointed to not see any circles in the background. Is it too much to ask for a pretentious or cloyingly obvious visual motif?
I enjoyed Dave Eggers in the past. Where the Wild Things Are and Away We Go were fantastical and heartfelt stories about complex people and the complex emotions they feel. James Ponsoldt directed the wonderful The End Of The Tour which contains the best post Muppets Jason Segel performance. These are not untalented men; I just can’t help but wonder if maybe they were the right men to bring this story to the screen.
A story, or a story teller, has one job: To make you care about it or their obsession. The Circle does none of this and has the temerity to not even have a sense of humor to boot. This movie is just dull, bad, and pompous. They don’t even order pizza via the Circle. How messed up is that?