I have to assume the novel that The Circle is based on delivers its story in a way that leaves the film adaptation nearly unrecognizable. That, or I have to believe that author Dave Eggers (Away We Go, Promised Land, A Hologram for the King) has completely lost his way. That may seem like a strange statement if you know that Eggers has co-writing credit on the film, along with director James Ponsoldt, but there’s a wide gulf between writing credit and responsibility for the writing.
I make this odd claim because Eggers’ writing has been sharp in the past, and The Circle is a boring, belabored, and insulting spin on a premise that might easily have been one of the year’s best films.
We don’t really need another run at privacy issues, or tech company domination (though that’s what people are scared of these days, so we’re going to get them), but an effort at exploring the slippery slopes inherent in a world where “progress” is moving at warp speed could have provided a mix of entertainment and statement that had everyone talking. Throw in a legitimate look at the coercion and/or attitude modeling possible using a medium you refuse to stop looking at, and we might have had an instant classic.
Instead, we get a film that is best described as competing with After School Specials instead of Best Picture nominees, and the ride we’re on is far more concerned with its agenda of pseudo-warning than it is with delivering a narrative or characters with any depth.
Mae (Emma Watson) has the best chance, obviously, of providing us with some meat, but once we move out of the first act the film abandons the effort, viewing her instead as simply the excuse we’re using to bounce around the “Big Brother” hijinx and thematic chicanery. A stand-in for a generation, we only see her prior to landing the job at The Circle so that we have a chance to see that her father has a serious medical condition, and the necessity clearly irritates the film.
Mae, by way of her close friend Annie (Karen Gillan), lands a job at The Circle, an Apple/Facebook combination that is poised to take over every aspect of a person’s life. Run by Bailey (Tom Hanks), who is also something of an amalgam of the obvious players in the game, The Circle is a social media platform with fingers in several other pies as well, and is about to launch a new supercamera the size of a marble that will livestream the world.
Mae is introduced to the large, round campus that is the epicenter of The Circle, and as she is being indoctrinated… or, welcomed, into the fold, we get a glimpse of the routine happenings we might expect from such a company and the world it creates around itself. Legislators question whether or not the company is violating laws, cyborg-y supervisors question the fact that Mae isn’t as interested in “sharing” her every waking moment as she is in doing her work, legislators who ask too many questions suddenly find themselves under investigation. It’s all very standard.
As events unfold, Mae finds herself maneuvered into the idea of “going transparent,” which in this case means wearing The Circle‘s new camera virtually 24/7, because if we know someone is always watching us, we are always making the right decisions… or whatever bumpersticker version of Orwellian nightmare the film tries to sell as something a person might actually say. In doing so, Mae comes to understand that things aren’t as innocent as they seem (or, really, really don’t seem), and having an inside-ish look at the company may well be leading to things closing in around her.
When the film lets us mill around with Mae, as she leads us into the company, it works fairly well and Emma Watson has the chance to showcase her charismatic ability to get an audience to follow along. Unfortunately, the film is so invested in its web of dangers and subterfuge that it loses touch with its own heroine, and doesn’t really care. While there is an interesting angle we might offer up on getting people to drink the Kool-Aid, a reference the film makes itself, this is a film that is so unimpressed with the generation and generational perspective its (sort of) skewering that it delivers that effort as being simply, “Hey, want some Kool-Aid?”
It’s the same lazy delivery that appears throughout the film and is indicative of the film’s estimation of its audience’s intelligence. Annie is overworked, and we know that because she suddenly looks like she just came from an audition for a horror movie. The Circle is doing shady things, and we know that because we nonsensically had to go look at the empty underground cavern where shady things will physically manifest at a later date. People have strange views about other people who aren’t “all in,” and we know that because two Stepford Wives are our cruise directors.
While it is a film with some moments, they aren’t worth sitting through the irritatingly obvious, and certainly aren’t worth strapping yourself in for the commercial. As odd as it is for Eggers to give us something of this calibre, it is perhaps stranger still for director James Ponsoldt, of The Spectacular Now and more recently the brilliant The End of the Tour, to return to the bonkers storytelling of Smashed.