Who would have thought a movie in which people use phones and computers the entire time would not be interesting?
Mae (Emma Watson) leaves her boring customer service job at a boring water company, to take a boring customer service job at the exciting tech company, The Circle. She gets this much–desired job with the help of her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), who is a significant person at the company. The Circle is led by the charismatic Bailey (Tom Hanks) and creepy, yet not sufficiently creepy, Stenton (Patton Oswald). The Circle’s main goal is to achieve complete transparency, through the use of omnipresent cameras, to eradicate crime and better the human condition. Mae begins to fall into The Circle’s alluring trap, despite the pushback from fellow Circler, Ty (John Boyega); her childhood friend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane); and her parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly). James Ponsoldt (director of the impressive The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour) directed The Circle and co-wrote the screenplay with Dave Eggers, the author of the novel, The Circle.
The Circle is not actually a miserable watching experience. It is a movie far below the talents of the cast and crew, but it is because of them that the movie is still watchable. The Circle tries to be too much, and fails at every attempt, making this a movie that is weak overall.
The Circle is clearly a politically fueled movie, in some ways modernizing concepts from 1984. However, instead of imagining a flawed government, The Circle exists essentially in the real world with the real threat being this one company taking over the world. The company of The Circle imagines itself to be creating a utopia, but as always, it is actually a dystopia.
The Circle presents a simple concept: that total surveillance leads to totalitarianism, and that totalitarianism is bad. However, it does not completely commit to this concept, especially with an ending diverging from that of the book, which muddles the message. The Circle also warns about the perils of social media. The themes of the danger of surveillance and the danger of social media take turns drawing the focus, never allowing one theme to be fully explored, and leaving these central, important messages to be irresponsibly vague.
One of the assets of the book is its ability to build up tension by making the reading experience stressful. The movie version of The Circle alludes to this in one scene detailing Mae’s responsibility to social media, but leaves it alone afterwards. The movie never really knows how to build tension. The book also succeeds at building tension through Mae’s slow fall down the rabbit hole of acceptance of The Circle. The entire situation escalates, making the reader aware of the growing problems but helpless to do anything. However, in the movie, everything is okay until it suddenly isn’t. This loses the tension and makes the experience feel uneven.
The Circle also pretends to be a thriller, which it is not. Nothing really happens. This movie could have worked as a psychological thriller if it was more similar to the book, but it does not even try. The Circle is passively fun, but does not succeed in becoming exciting. There is one scene of actual action, but the rest of movie is just characters using phones and computers, or making presentations. The score from the usually incredible Danny Elfman undermines this even further. Elfman’s score feels like music for a thriller, but ends up just feeling intrusive. It is not bad, it just feels out of place.
Sudden shifts are also evident in the characters, especially those with dissenting voices. Because it does not build tension, The Circle cuts away to characters with worried expressions or distressed monologues instead of actually explaining anything. Annie suddenly looks and acts exhausted and we are never given a proper explanation. Ty reveals his secrets too early, making the ending work out far too easily. This leaves him to stand annoyingly in the back, looking disapprovingly far too often. Mercer’s journey also escalates without enough explanation.
This all stems from the fact that this is entirely Emma Watson’s movie. The rest of the immensely talented group of actors is pushed to the side, leaving the spotlight to shine on her story, when all the characters should work to tell the story together. This would not be so terrible if Mae was not such a flat character, compared to the much more interesting side cast, who all feel unfortunately wasted.
Mae is an uninteresting protagonist. This is of no fault of Watson, who once again does an excellent job playing her public persona. Besides the content, there is absolutely no difference between Mae’s Circle speeches and Watson’s HeForShe speeches. Liking kayaking is not enough to make Mae an interesting character.
The book depicts The Circle as an especially powerful force by presenting Mae as completely helpless to resist The Circle’s temptation. By contrast, the movie The Circle seems scared to turn Watson remotely villainous. She eventually becomes aware of the consequences of her actions, making her a more redeeming character, and watering down the impact.
Unless the plot of the movie The Circle was to be drastically changed from that of the book, the movie seemed from the start to be a doomed adaptation. The movie would have required a significant amount of explanation to get the messages across, which even the book does not completely succeed in doing in its 500 pages. Not enough time in the movie is devoted to the right things, making the result sloppy. This is an incredibly weak dystopia that never effectively explains its situation, failing in the goal of all dystopias to warn the audience away from this outcome.