How did a movie with so many good elements fall apart so terribly? It has an all-star cast of amazing actors, writer-director James Ponsoldt riding a wave of critical acclaim following his previous work (“Smashed”, “The Spectacular Now,” “The End of the Tour”), and a script co-written by Dave Eggers, author of the source material. And yet, somehow, all the pieces don’t fall into place perfectly.
“The Circle” is about Mae (Emma Watson), a young woman who takes a job at a large powerful company called The Circle. The company is an amalgamation of Google, Facebook, and Apple, and its services evolve as more people are hired. As Mae becomes better at her job and rises up in the ranks, she meets the founder and head of The Circle Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and finds herself in a precarious situation that puts her at odds with those closest to her, with large human rights implications.
The premise of the film is its most exciting aspect, not to mention its timeliness, as we witness the rise of a surveillance state in the U.S., through the NSA spying on citizens and non-citizens alike without a warrant. However, the execution of that concept is poor, as The Circle never feels real (a surprise, again, given the state of our country now). The film’s script is very uneven, as the first half manages to be decent, if not stellar. There are large moments in the film that are full of either exposition or conversations that serve no purpose.
The movie’s second half almost completely goes off the rails, as it deviates from the book and muddies its oppositional message against a surveillance state. It also takes some liberties with its characters that make no sense, seeing as the script didn’t bother to develop them or explain their changing motivations. The ending of the film seems to try to have its cake and eat it too by arguing for transparency but also against surveillance.
The look of the film is very odd as well. Many of the shots are composed nicely, but there’s a muddiness and dinginess to the cinematography that undercuts the technological aspects of the story. At times, I could not help but think I was looking at life in the United States during the Dust Bowl.
Sadly, the performances are as uneven as the rest of the film. Watson gives as good of a performance as she can, although her character is written the most inconsistently. Hanks is fine in a role that doesn’t give him much to do, and is undercut by how little screen time he has in the film. The film never fully communicated how Eamon was charismatic and enthralling enough for The Circle to develop a cult-like following in its workforce (I did appreciate the nice touch of Beck, the musician, appearing in the film. It was very knowing).
John Boyega is also included in the film as Ty Lafitte, the original inventor of the idea behind the company. He’s forgettable, as he’s in the film for about ten minutes. Ellar Coltrane, who played Mae’s childhood friend Mercer, really showed his acting inexperience in this film, most notably in the scene where he’s reprimanding Mae for spending all her time in The Circle. Bill Paxton as Mae’s father, who’s suffering from MS, gives a beautifully poignant performance. This was his last film role before he passed away due to complications from surgery.
“The Circle” is one of the rare films that I would say needed about 30-40 more minutes to fully flesh out its plot and characters, as they all feel as false as The Circle itself. This could have been an exciting film, but in the end it can’t help but feel like a didactic lecture from an elderly man about the dangers of technology.