(2017—Director: James Ponsoldt)
★★ (out of 5 stars)
One of The Circle’s first trailers, released last December, starts off with a modified version of the scene in which Emma Watson’s character undergoes an interview for a job at the titular Internet corporation. The interviewer presses her, “You’re most scared of…?” to which she replies, “Unfulfilled potential.” In that case, the film Ms. Watson’s character inhabits should petrify her into silence. Such a reaction would be better than the disappointment and weariness generated in me by the time the credits started to roll.
Ms. Watson, fresh off the mixed reception of her auto-tuned pipes in the live action Beauty & the Beast remake, stars as Mae Holland, a hardworking but otherwise ordinary worker dissatisfied with her drab office job and concerned for the well-being of her mother (Glenne Headly, Don Jon and HBO’s The Night Of) and handicapped father (Bill Paxton, in his last film role). Mae’s connection with college friend Annie (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy) leads to a promising customer relations gig at the titular Internet corporation. Co-founded by the Steve Jobs-esque Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, converting charisma into authority) and the intimidating COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle consists of a state-of-the-art facility where employees take part in the company’s luxury amenities and diverse social groups. As Mae rises in the company and even offers to live a fully transparent life to test the company’s newest technology, the unexpected breaches in her privacy, surveillance, and general freedom cause her to question the ethics of her new occupation.
For much of its runtime, this latest offering of writer-director James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now, The End of the Tour)—collaborating with co-writer Dave Eggers, who wrote the original 2013 novel—merely put its narrative and thematic potential (not to mention Gerald Sullivan’s clean, futuristic production design) on display that it only occurred to me around the last act that the potential had yet to move me in any significant fashion. This lack of cinematic cohesiveness demonstrates itself in the performances. Emma Watson possesses a charming, candid personality, which grants her just as much authenticity when her character Mae goes fully transparent and displays the version of herself most palatable to viewers.
Still, Ms. Watson has some time before she can carry a film alone, which brings attention to the unbalanced screen time given to her supporting players. John Boyega (Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens) plays Ty Lafitte, the marginalized, enigmatic, and off-the-grid Circle programmer to whom Emma Watson’s Mae warms up. Boyega’s biggest scene, aside from his requisite first meeting and a later off-screen phone conversation with her, amounts to him taking Mae to an empty underground tunnel set aside for future company purposes and warning her about the underestimated power the company holds, before the film relegates to a few inserts of him standing unseen at the back of crowds. Elsewhere, the film wastes Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane as Mae’s childhood friend and talented wood-carver, while Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt use what little screen time they have to try to build a subtle, overarching, and authoritative menace that the film puts to little use. I would have loved to see more of Karen Gillan’s subplot as Mae’s friend and Circle insider who works herself to exhaustion.
After relying almost entirely on Emma Watson’s star power and under-utilizing everyone else, The Circle then falls apart in its message. Films about advanced technology tend to fall prey not only to becoming dated fast, but to taking a condescending, simple, and even extreme approach in showing viewers its dangers. Scenes of Mae typing for hours on end to answer customer questions and messages from fellow employees spell the life-draining monotony of social media addiction, while lines like, “Knowledge is a human right…Access to all human experience is a basic human right,” seem to speak ill of privacy and to justify such addictions as the necessary avenue for making those “basic human rights” a reality for all. Which side of the divide does Mae encourage us to join? We can only guess, especially with the ambiguous and anticlimactic ending the film gives us.
The Circle disappoints in a way unlike earlier 2017 releases like Beauty & the Beast, Life, and Logan—its disjointed and slack substance fails to keep it above a threshold of guaranteed cinematic quality. The surrounding visual embellishments emphasize the film’s weaknesses rather than compensate for them, even though the actors deserve some credit for trying to save a sinking ship with their honest character portrayals. Let us hope that, as Emma Watson goes on her year-long hiatus for “personal development” and women’s rights activism (as she announced in her February 18th interview with Paper, the New York-based independent magazine), she also readjusts her ability to pick bold future acting projects with which to grow beyond the creative confines of that magical Harry Potter world where we first discovered her.