The Circle is a big honking sloppy mess of a movie, one that flops around so aimlessly that it’s baffling so many intelligent people had a hand in making it. It’s directed by James Ponsoldt (who made the excellent The Spectacular Now and the intriguing The End of the Tour), co-written by Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers (based off Eggers’s novel), and features a dream cast, from Emma Watson to Tom Hanks to John Boyega to Patton Oswalt to Bill Paxton, in his final film performance. It is a film of the moment, about surveillance and oversharing and living in virtual world devoid of human connection. Everything is set up perfectly for The Circle. So why is it so terrible?
Part of the problem is that the movie doesn’t know what it’s about; it keeps changing its mind and losing focus. It stars Watson as Mae, a digital babe-in-the-woods worried about her ailing father (Paxton) and her off-the-digital-grid platonic love interest Mercer (Ellar Coltrane, from Boyhood). She takes a job with The Circle, a Facebook-crossed-with-Google-like corporation whose goal is to “elegantly streamline the chaos of the Web,” which basically boils down to owning every financial transaction and, ultimately, the having ability to handle all governmental-type tasks.
There’s a friendly face put on all this. There is the chummy corporate campus, where there are constant parties, support groups, and Beck concerts. There is also the warm, friendly CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks), who couches all his Big Brother tendencies in casual, Upworthy platitudes of simply wanting to make the world a better place. Mae finds herself entranced by the stability and optimism of the place, but then, spurred on by a secretive company founder named Ty (Boyega), who skulks around and warns of menace at every corner, she begins to grow wary of the company’s new product, SeeChange, which allows tiny cameras to see everything, everywhere, at all times.
At least I think she’s wary. One of the many problems with The Circle is that it never gets much of a handle on Mae. Is she a brave, regular person battling the impending lurch of technology? Or is she actually the perfect fit for The Circle’s particular brand of cultism? Beats me, which is a problem in a movie in which everyone is either a salt-of-the-earth, nature-loving, makes-stuff-with-their-hands technophobe or a social media pod person. And just when the movie is starting to settle into a logical arc for Mae, it shifts suddenly, turning her into, out of nowhere, a blatant social media exhibitionist, with no set-up or payoff.
The movie seems to have a lot of things it wants to say about technology, but it hasn’t thought them, or its main character, through all that carefully. Watson is an earnest young actress, sometimes to a fault; she hasn’t quite shaken that Hermione-esque eagerness to please, which leaves her stranded in a film that hasn’t figured out who she’s supposed to be playing. Is she a dreamer? A skeptic? A convert? A devious conniver? A true believer? I have no idea, and you won’t either. Watson is an actress adrift here, and the audience can’t help but float away with her.
Another issue is that, in the novel, Eggers could let allusion do a lot of the work for him. He could come up with an idea like SeeChange or SoulSearch (which is a program that can find any person on the planet within 10 minutes, whether or not they want to be found), and the reader could draw his own connections to Brave New World or 1984. But under the harsh constraints of a three-act movie, these inventions look gimmicky and basic. They look like the plot contrivances they really are.
The movie is baffling in still other ways. As much as Hanks tries to give his nice-guy CEO darker shadings, he’s a mostly incoherent character, there to make big speeches when the movie requires one, but never built up enough to be the true villain the movie’s climax wants him to be. (Also: Why does Bailey initially take such an interest in Mae? The movie’s so choppily put together that it’s impossible to say.)
And poor John Boyega. The Star Wars actor has such natural, easy charm that you keep waiting for his character to make even a grain of sense. He’s sort of the company’s founder, but he’s in hiding, except he’s always hanging around the campus, but no one seems to recognize him, but then he pops back up to look disappointed in Mae, and then to help her, and then … I give up. I defy anyone to define even basic biographical information about Boyega’s character. His whole story has the feel of a drastic last-minute studio intervention either to maximize his character’s screen time or to minimize it. What they’ve ended up with is farcical.
You can see seeds of what The Circle could have been. When Mae is living a “transparent life”—it’s another bit of muddled satire in which she lives in public with cameras following her around; honestly it’s not worth getting too deep into—there are some interesting visual elements, with little chat bubbles popping up around her, commenting on the action. (Occasionally the bubbles feel like critics pointing out plot holes.) There’s some potentially fruitful terrain with Mae’s parents, particularly Paxton, who effortlessly provides more characterization in five minutes than anyone else in the cast.
These are all smart people who made this movie, and I am sure they will go on to do smart things in the future. I’m not sure what happened here. Whatever this movie was trying to be in the first place, by the time the finished product hit the screen, it had long lost the thread. Somehow, The Circle is a complete fiasco.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site