Based on the novel by Dave Eggers, and featuring the author as co-writer with director James Ponsoldt, it’s shocking to find that The Circle manages to hit every important moment of the book, but never manages to capture any of the emotional development and journey of the characters.
The Circle stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young woman stuck in a crappy job and still living in her hometown. She gets a call from college friend Annie (Karen Gillan) telling her that she’s gotten her an interview at the Circle, a massive Google-like company that has their hands in just about everything involving technology. Mae is excited to get this opportunity, so she leaves her parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) house and heads to the large campus of the Circle. Once there, she’s quickly wrapped up in an ever increasing amount of work, as well as advances in tiny digital cameras that connect the world and allow people to see anything and everything. It’s a step to make people accountable for their actions, and after an incident where Mae is captured on film doing something she shouldn’t, she’s soon wearing one of the cameras on her collar, showing the world that “sharing is caring”. A mysterious co-worker (John Boyega) tries to tell Mae that things shouldn’t be this way, but she won’t listen until a tragic event makes her realize what the Circle is doing wrong.
It’s very possible that that synopsis above makes it sound like The Circle is filled with earth-shattering emotional moments and various looks at the way in which technology can be used to make the world hide their true selves. At least, that’s what you found within the novel, along with much more. The film is content to just show you everything you would remember about the book, but without all that unnecessary stuff like emotion.
In the novel, Mae is at first wary of the strange, obsessive way that everybody at the Circle works and lives connected, but it’s not long before she’s wrapped up in it as well. By gradually increasing her participation in the company, she starts to get instantaneous feedback that fuels her need for acceptance. It pulls her away from her family, who don’t want to be that connected in the world and think that some things shouldn’t be shared with everybody. Eventually, she realizes how dangerous this intrusion can become.
With The Circle, Watson simply plays it all as if she isn’t sure what’s going on is good right up until the end. Gone are all the great moments of her growing reliance on the feedback and “connection” she’s getting from digital interactions. Also gone are the moments of increasing terror that comes from the various devices that the Circle continues to create. In the novel, it eventually leads to almost every politician in the world wearing a little camera to show they’re doing no wrong. Finally, we see upcoming entrepreneurs pitching the company on products that would highlight criminals in different colours through retinal displays, show people who don’t belong in neighbourhoods, and give everybody the ability to see, hear, and be alerted to basically anything that is considered out of the ordinary. If we’re all constantly watched, how could we possibly do anything wrong? Of course, how could we be anything but fake when the world is always watching.
All of that is missing in The Circle. What you’re left with is a movie that seems to be attempting to hit every moment of the book just to show you how well they paid attention. Bam! Mae’s father is struggling with MS and soils himself! Bam! Remember that Senator that came to the company and promised to show you everything they did every day? Here she is! Bam! Remember the way Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer (played here lazily and dull by Ellar Coltrane) built her parents a silver chandelier out of deer antlers? There it is in the background!
Sure, it’s nice that the film captures these moments, in a mostly surface level only, but it forever forgets that these moments lead into other moments that are rather important. Instead, these scenes are just peppered throughout the film, with their impact an afterthought. There are also some massive gaps in the story that make no sense. Mae and Annie are incredibly close friends, which we get in the movie, and they eventually start to pull away from each other as Mae begins to gain popularity and importance within the company, all leading to an eventual confrontation. In the film, Annie simply goes from super friendly, to hateful, with no real reason explained. If you’ve read the novel, you understand, but that’s not going to help the numerous audience members who haven’t.
It’s a shame that the absurdity and eventual terror that you can find in the novel didn’t make it to the screen. The idea seems ridiculous, but if you spend a few minutes looking around you, it doesn’t really feel like we’re that far off from all this. There’s a push to make everything digital right now, with physical objects slowly losing their allure. We’re already sharing too much of our lives online, and very few people really seem to understand how much of their privacy they’re giving up when they do it. The only thing we’re missing is the evil corporation ready to pounce all over it. Or are we?
Everybody at least does their best with their roles, and besides Coltrane who seems as if he’s sleepwalking through the movie, the cast does a great job. Nobody is given anything beyond one character trait though, so how hard can it be for actors of this calibre to pull it off. Tom Hanks is goofy and smarmy as one of the company founders Eamon Bailey, while Patton Oswalt, although really a bit miscast, still pulls off the smug co-founder Tom Stenton. John Boyega is wasted in a role that should have been more of a mystery, but is blown the second time he’s onscreen, which is basically the last time he’s onscreen.
Essentially, The Circle is a waste. It’s a waste of an incredible story, it’s a waste of talented actors, and it’s a waste of time for anybody to bother watching. I really couldn’t be more disappointed as I’m a huge fan of the novel and there was an opportunity to create a film that could slowly crawl under your skin and make you start to fear the technology that surrounds us. The fact that Eggers is involved and still can’t help translate the important ideas to the screen is even more confusing. Perhaps there’s a behind the scenes story that we’re not getting, and if that’s the case, it would probably involve somebody with little understanding and knowledge of what would work, sticking their nose into things they should have left alone.