It’s mystifying how hard “The Circle” works to achieve nothing at all. This film just doesn’t know what it wants to do or say. Characters are set up, plot points are planted, ideas are explored — but all with the precision of a flash flood.
The Film is based on the 2013 Dave Eggers novel by the same name. It follows Mae Holland, working at the powerful tech company: The Circle. The movie starts with Mae (Emma Watson) kayaking. While out on the lake she gets a text. She sighs and puts her phone away. This is the only scene we get alone with her and all we have to understand her as a character.
Five minutes later we’ve been introduced to her friends Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) and Annie (Karen Gillan), and her parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly) and she’s started her job at The Circle.
She becomes the center of a new project the company is working on. Her bosses Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Stenton (Patton Oswalt) have her wear a camera at all times to livestream her every moment. They pitch it as the future of human kinship, but it’s really some kind of poorly thought out grab at mass indoctrination. The movie glazes over this aspect in favor of portraying Mae’s new form of living. And there are no scenes depicting the apprehensive Mae coming to enjoy this streaming. She gets a scene in which she gives her audience an overly joyful “good morning,” and from then on she’s sold on the whole idea. This feels less like her character developing and more like it snapping in half.
The movie tries to make up for its rushed exposition by connecting each scene with robotic dialogue. It seems that the film figures we won’t notice the lack of humanity in its characters if the plot keeps moving: like when Mae and Mercer are having their first conversation since Mae got her job. This is only the second time we’ve seen them interact in the movie and they’re supposed to be old friends. But the second thing out of Mercer’s mouth after “how ya doin” is something about not trusting technology. The film doesn’t set this up as on-going tension between them. It just wants to abruptly introduce that The Circle might not be a virtuous as Mae sees it right then. Ellar Coltrane’s stunningly poor acting doesn’t help.
But even the plethora of actually quality actors in “The Circle” can’t make its disjointed interactions natural. The film is desperately tinkering with the shape of its characters — and this only opens the door to more inconsistencies.
Mae is the least sound character. But she isn’t the only flip-flopper. Mae’s coworker Ty (John Boyega) is the creator of the app TruYou, which is what has given The Circle all of its success so far. He hates what the company has become and is planning to do something to take it down. He tells Mae that he sees the company’s mass surveillance project as a threat to individuality. He and Mae talk only twice in the film. But with one phone call from her later in the movie, Ty just flips and helps her on her way as she takes control of The Circle. There are no scenes to show that he would be okay with this, nor are there scenes implying that Mae is tricking him. It’s absurd.
The film poses several questions while Mae streams her life. What are the consequences of social media we have yet to realize? How might authoritarians in control of technology direct collective experience? These are important questions in our time, but you won’t find any answers here. “The Circle” has no perspective. It drops its murky theses at our feet and leaves us with the needle-nosed task of extracting them from its messy pretenses — and it expects us to be satisfied with these boilerplate hot takes. This film is frantic for a direction, but it can’t even manage to go in circles.