‘The Circle’ is one of those 10-minutes-in-the-future satirical thrillers that can cause queasy unease with their prescient commentary (i.e. the ‘Black Mirror’ effect). Unfortunately, it’s not a particularly good one. There are great ideas at the core, some fantastic sequences, and committed movie star performances that suggest everyone sincerely wanted this to work. But it didn’t.
Perhaps it was the book by Dave Eggers was never meant to be a movie. Maybe some studio tampering watered it down. Regardless, ‘The Circle’ blows up some interesting ideas into a sluggish film without much to offer beyond smug observations of the obvious.
Emma Watson stars as Mae, a listless live-at-home twenty-something with a boring job and an equally dull boyfriend (Ellar Coltrane from ‘Boyhood’). Things perk up when a friend (Karen Gillan) gets her a job at The Circle, a catch-all social media company featuring the most irritating aspects of Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. She immediately falls for the company and the ways in which it’s closing the gap between our private and online lives. Led by the Steve Jobs-ish tech guru Bailey (Tom Hanks), The Circle strives to make everything about everyone public and has installed tiny cameras all over the world to increase The Circle’s surveillance powers. Mae proves to not only be a success at the company but becomes a star within The Circle, soon an internet icon taken under the wing of Bailey and a mysterious employee played by John Boyega. It doesn’t take long for things to get weird and Mae to realize that being watched all the time isn’t exactly a great thing, even if it’s voluntary.
The movie has plenty of good ideas. As dangerous as it is to make any sort of techno thriller/satire these days given how quickly imagined technology ages, director James Ponsoldt (‘The Spectacular Now’) does an impressive job creating a believable slightly-futuristic world that criticizes our own. He creates some striking images both foreboding (like a creepy crowd shot of a massive group of people illuminated by their cell phone screens) and hilarious (neighboring co-workers texting each other instead of turning their heads to speak) in their prescience. The script (co-written by author Eggers) raises some interesting questions about how making all behavior public might actually improve our actions, and amusingly mocks modern “adult play pen” offices and various other contemporary irritations. The film tosses plenty of intriguing concepts at the screen and then never quite satisfyingly brings them home.
Unfortunately, ‘The Circle’ doesn’t have an exciting or insightful thesis to impart from its clever concepts, and that’s a problem. After setting up an intriguing world with a delightfully believable satirical tone, the film slowly devolves into a thriller that isn’t particularly thrilling. Part of it is the problem inherent with so many internet/computer/phone-based thrillers: It’s not remotely exciting to watch actors stare at screens, no matter how flashy the cinematography or how quick the cuts. Ultimately, that’s what so much of ‘The Circle’ comes down to, with Emma Watson left in a daze as an actress, asked to do little more than furrow her brow with concern and either look off camera or at a screen in lieu of any interesting actions or behaviors to play. To be fair, it might not be her fault; the film is quite awkwardly edited, suggested some tampering that spoiled whatever the initial plans were.
The movie also lacks a satisfying tempo, which is a major failing for a thriller, a comedy, and especially a film attempting to combine both genres. Subplots seem to disappear randomly, character relations change suddenly without explanation, pacing is all over the place, actors seem oddly underserved given their stature, and the ending feels both rushed and awkwardly obvious. There’s a chance that ‘The Circle’ was always tonally confused and just used to be longer. However, given how intriguing the film seems initially and how messy it becomes, it feels more like somewhere along the line this movie was taken away from the creators.
That’s a shame. This had the potential to be a prescient movie with a gentler spin on the think-piece nightmares of ‘Black Mirror’. Instead, it’s just kind of a mess. Tom Hanks is pretty good, even if it’s clear what twist is coming with his character from the beginning. Hanks hardcores might get something out of this. Otherwise, it’s just not worth sampling the good stuff to get to the disappointments.