There exists within the realm of storytelling the idea that there exists only a certain number of stories that could be told. Within this frame, originality will not be found in just the premise or archetypes or tropes, but in how these are twisted, subverted, bent, and played with to offer the world a new perspective on an age-old story. So when the trailers came out for The Circle, I saw an opportunity to take the ideas that are normally presented in an anti-surveillance film and perhaps add upon it to make something truly special. After watching it, however, I saw that this unfortunately just was not the case.
The Circle, directed by James Ponsoldt begins with a quick scene of the main character Mae (Emma Watson) kayaking alone when her phone rings. She quickly looks at it but ignores it as she passes on (an action that sums up the entirety of the message within a thirty-second frame, but as this is a movie, the message has to be stretched to fill a time about two hundred and forty times that). The movie then quickly cycles through a series of scenes that establish Mae’s unglamorous life of answering phones and caring for her ailing Father. Her fortune changes when she receives the opportunity to interview for the Circle, a social media juggernaut that puts top companies like Google and Facebook to shame. Once there, she slowly starts to become a more central figure to the Circle, all the while beginning to see that perhaps having technology be in every facet of a person’s life may not, in fact, be all that it’s cracked up to be.
The first thing that you would probably notice is that there’s not much new to this story. After all, the genre is saturated with shows, books, and stories about the dangers of technology. Where this movie falters, however, is that it doesn’t offer up anything new to the conversation of privacy infringement. Everything is predictable, which makes this movie just seem so boring in comparison to older, less well-funded ventures. The character writing isn’t that much better than the plot writing either. This is most evident in the treatment of Mae, who isn’t shown to have much of an understanding of the abuses of technology even though she’s in touch with the cultural zeitgeist enough to understand the differences between pre and post 2000 Mario and Sonic. It would be reasonable to assume that you would believe that Mae would be an active force in the movie, looking into the bottom of the company’s conspiracy. Instead, she’s a passive character that’s used to demonstrate the common sense of the technological age. With more creative effort, it would have been much easier to overlook some of the weaker parts of the film due to sheer novelty.
Now, I’m not a big proponent of throwing the baby with the bathwater, as there are some redeeming qualities of the movie. Unfortunately, they are all technical things that can easily slide under the radar due to the nature of their jobs. For example, this movie does text on film really well. While the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting is a great resource for understanding why this is a big deal, I can quickly explain here that the movie does a great job in displaying what people are typing on computers or comments they are electronically receiving on screen in real time without having to cut back and forth between screens or display things in grandma font sizes. The movie is also very pleasing to the eye, and all of the sound edits are done quite well. If the rest of the movie held up like these more technical parts, then this would have been quite the film.
Take The Circle’s editing, for instance, as it needs some work. Consider the introduction of Karen Gillan’s character. Or rather her non-introduction, as she’s literally introduced off-camera. Mae receives a phone call that she’s been granted an interview in the Circle through a friend named Annie, but it never reveals the face of who’s on the other side. Skip to some five minutes ahead and she’s having an orientation with Karen Gillan without ever establishing who she is. Later, she tells her parents that the woman orienting her was Annie all along. So instead of saving the viewer the time to properly introduce her, it instead asks the audience to go through some mental hoops in order to put two and two together. This might not seem like much, but this all takes place within the first ten minutes, and this is but a taste of what the rest of the editing of the movie is like.
The acting is somewhat baffling. There is a strict divide between the great performances and the rest. Tom Hanks, of course, is the most charismatic figure in the movie, Glenne Headly and the late Bill Paxton disappear into their roles as Mae’s parents, and Karen Gillan and Patton Oswalt do their best with the material they’ve given. The rest, unfortunately, aren’t up to this level. All of the workers in the Circle don’t act like real people, but instead, come across as cultists who just happen to follow whoever is has the strongest personality in the room. No one plays devil’s advocate, but instead, foster an echo chamber that just escalates whatever scenario is being played out. The other unmentioned characters aren’t too much better. Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mae’s friend, acts like he’s scared of the camera, sauntering awkwardly into the camera with nervous self-consciousness as he delivers lines. Emma Watson is just serviceable. Finally, while he’s in a place of prominence in the trailer, John Boyega is criminally underused to the point that, while being an important character, he’s listed under musical artist Beck in the credits.
If it seems like I’m a little harsh on the movie, it’s because it just a mediocre collaboration from people who are better known for creating better projects. The Director, James Ponsoldt, is well known for The Spectacular Now. The screenplay is based on a novel by Dave Eggers, who is well known for works like What is the What and the much lauded A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. With such achievements behind them, along with the talent and crew that this project assembled, you would think that this movie would have been smarter, bolder, and less risk-averse.
So would we recommend this movie? Well, if you somehow have missed the boat on shows such as The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Black Mirror, or the entire genre of science fiction, then perhaps this would be a safe introduction into what these offer. If not, then we would strongly advise you to just hang onto your money until next week, and your future self will thank you.
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