THE CIRCLE Review

Not everyone is going to like you. That is a lesson today's society could stand to appreciate a little more if not learn, but that doesn't mean that's going to stop people from trying. Wanting to be liked isn't inherently a bad thing, but when we depend on "Likes" to sustain our own sense of self-worth, when we're living off "Likes" there could certainly be one or two issues pop up. When we live through the persona we've created online and reach a point we can't identify our true selves then what people like isn't actually the individual anymore anyway, so where do we draw the line? How can this age of transparency be utilized in positive ways rather than resorting to fake or devious methods to again try and prove that some lives are more valuable or more special than others? In The Circle Emma Watson plays a young, presumably middle glass girl in her early twenties who goes to work for a tech company a la Google called The Circle and essentially becomes their poster child for transparency. Submitting herself to the line of thinking that she can only be her best self when she knows people are watching her; that to leave her to her own devices would mean that she would develop and keep secrets and to harbor secrets is to have something to lie about to the world. Sound slightly cult-ish? It's supposed to, but while the tech company that is The Circle clearly has ulterior motives for their extreme invasions of privacy that they so lovingly convey as being concerns for the greater good of mankind The Circle the movie doesn't seem as clear on what its motives or meanings are supposed to be. On one hand there is certainly an analogy at play for the world as presented in the film when compared to that of the social media-driven culture we're all currently a part of, but while Facebook can still plead connection and bringing people together as their main objective it is so blatantly obvious that The Circle seeks world domination that it's past the point of believable someone hasn't called them on their bluff already. Furthermore, the film builds in a fashion where the audience is led to believe there is going to be a major twist, a serious maneuver of innovation over intelligence, a battle of wits for the ages, but when such metaphoric beans come to be spilled there is hardly any cohesion to the point our protagonist makes. Watson's Mae Holland uses The Circle's tools against its nefarious leaders, but she has no point, no position, and all we're left with is a clouded message of a movie that goes nowhere.

Ty (John Boyega) shows new hire Mae (Emma Watson) the more sinister side of The Circle.
Photo by Frank Masi - © 2017 - STX Entertainment
In a strange way it was clear from the opening three shots that The Circle was something of a mess. A lack of cohesion was immediately apparent. The editing simply didn't click and the composition of these first three, seemingly disparate images felt more like an act of desperation-a movie searching for where to begin rather than a piece of art that had been treated with meticulious care. These first three shots consist of plotting out a normal day in the life of Mae who is first seen kayaking then in a cubicle dealing with an upset customer at the water company she works for and finally driving home in her car that doesn't seem it has enough juice left in it to make it home. We understand the point of this quick montage of daily activities, but the immediate fact there is no energy to the way these scenes are cut together says more about the product as a whole than the content of those scenes. Mae's car does indeed break down on her way home forcing her to call longtime friend Mercer (Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane) who only makes things feel more amateurish with his wooden acting and stilted line delivery. Its clear Mercer has had a crush on Mae since before he can remember, but Mae only sees Mercer as another way she might settle into this life everyone around her has already accepted. Still living with her parents so as to help her mother (Glenne Headley) tend to her father (the late Bill Paxton) and his multiple sclerosis Mae dreams of bigger things. Though it never explains how they met or how her good friend Annie (Karen Gillan) rose to such high ranks before getting Mae an interview she does eventually get Mae an interview at The Circle. Things start looking up when Mae is hired to work for the large and powerful tech and social media company despite the fact she is starting out in what more or less sounds like a customer service role. It doesn't matter because this is the opportunity of a lifetime and Mae is excited. She's beyond excited; she's ecstatic. As Mae begins to rise through the ranks, she is encouraged by the company's founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), and his COO, Stenton (Patton Oswalt), to engage in a groundbreaking experiment that pushes the boundaries of privacy, ethics, and what is ultimately her personal freedom. It is through her participation in this experiment that she begins to see how allowing every facet of her life to be public can not only help others, but more how it affects the lives and futures of her friends and family never mind the rest of humanity.

There is no reason The Circle should be as bad as it is. Not a single reason. Based on a book by Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, A Hologram for the King) with the author adapting his own novel for the screen alongside director James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour) who were able to coral a cast of rather incredible talents for what is ultimately a smaller scale film (though it's certainly the biggest thing Ponsoldt has made to date) there is no reason this should be as bad as it is. When you take into consideration these creative minds and the credits they have to their name along with the likes of Watson, Hanks, Gillan, and John Boyega set to convey these ideas to the world it seems it would be next to impossible to deliver a movie that isn't at least interesting if not necessarily great. And yet, here we are. Beyond the fact the film as a whole feels shoddily put together the narrative never makes sense in the way it wants to or should and thus never engages the audience in a way where we could ever believe what is happening even though we live in the world we live in. I haven't read Eggars novel though I'm curious now as to how this apparently received the type of praise it did (or maybe it didn't? Am I misguided?) and yet has produced a motion picture companion that is this incoherent and bland. Strangely enough, I can see how this might have worked better as a novel than it does on the big screen due to the fact some of the creepier elements might in fact come off as creepy and more sinister through the written word than they do when we hear people actually voice them aloud. The moment in the film concerning Mercer being chastised for killing deer and making chandeliers from their antlers is a prime example of something that could come off as genuinely frightening and legit when reading it, but comes off rather laughable in the film especially given it is delivered via Coltrane's limited acting chops.

To go one step further though, and what is the crux of many of the problems with The Circle is the fact the arc of our protagonist makes zero sense and it would seem Watson didn't even fully understand Mae's journey before taking on the role. After Mae's first week of work at The Circle she is bombarded by co-workers who encourage her to step-up her activity on their social media platforms and her involvement with weekend activities. She's weirded out by this and rightly so, but is hesitant to rub anyone the wrong way given how much she needs the job and the solid pay and benefits that come along with it. In attempting to mingle and participate Mae comes into contact with the rather reclusive Ty (Boyega) who is seemingly the only other person at the company not drinking the Kool-Aid. We don't know the extent of Ty's story initially, but it's pretty easy to glean the character is a plot device only here to give the "guppy" that is Mae access and insight to places and information she otherwise wouldn't be granted for years if ever. I'm only thankful Boyega sports an earnest tone that allows his cryptic dialogue to sound as natural as it possibly could. While something happens that would justify Mae maybe taking a few sips her character has been established as a self-aware and insightful personality that can detect bullshit from a mile away and yet after this turning point Mae begins devouring the Kool-Aid by the gallon. Blindly drinking in everything Eamon is selling.

Mae encounters CEO Eamon (Tom Hanks) and COO Stenton (Patton Oswalt) in The Circle.
Photo by Francois Duhamel - © 2017 - STX Entertainment
It was at this moment of confusion, this moment that Mae's character took this sharp left that I had to actually stop and consider if the character was actually getting sucked into this world The Circle purported or if she was simply afraid of losing her position and thus succumbed to the powers that be to the extent necessary so as to not raise any red flags. It would have seemed like as much given in the first act of the film that Mae was indeed just looking out for her best interests while actually wondering why things only seemed to be getting stranger and stranger. Why is her best friend literally always working and never getting any sleep? Why does no one who works at The Circle have kids? If the mysterious guy whose role in the company we aren't privy to at first isn't drinking the Kool-Aid why isn't he doing so? How critical is he to the continuation of the company? The Circle poses many of these questions simply out of the fact that, as a movie, it feels the need to hits the beats it thinks it's supposed to without thinking through how such tropes might need to eventually come together in some meaningful way that allows for each of them to make sense as a whole. Instead, we are never told what is going on with Annie or why, in the span of a few months, she goes from loving her job to hating it much less what any of it has to do with the meteoric rise of her best friend. We are repeatedly told by Boyega's Ty that what The Circle has become is never what he intended it to be, but the truth of what those intentions were are never revealed either. And while the lack of any semblance of symmetry between the narrative and its characters is near unforgivable the fact the film has Tom Hanks in a nasty little supporting role and doesn't utilize him but for more than a handful of scenes is almost as bad. The same is true of Boyega and even the late Paxton, but when you are somehow able to wrangle America's sweetheart into playing against type and in a role that is clearly meant to mirror a personality like Steve Jobs and don't give them more interesting and biting material than what we see here there is no other way to categorize as much as anything other than that of the biggest of missed opportunities. Alas, a missed opportunity is exactly what The Circle amounts to being. A movie of sermons made to make us feel guilty about ignoring the dangers of oversharing rather than a movie of action made to illustrate that memories will be what flash through our minds on our deathbed and not the number of "Likes" a post received.