Technology is an easy subject for a film to satirize in many different ways. It can be used to illuminate problems within our society and highlight our see-through plastique that has covered many people’s lives by way of social media and the internet in general. One of the best recent examples is the Netflix show Black Mirror. Every episode of that program takes a special look at some technological aspect of our world and holds it up to a mirror as if to tell us that if something isn’t done to halt this shift the world is making, we could soon be headed for disaster. This film (based on the book by Dave Eggers, who also co-wrote the screenplay) attempts to do a similar thing but does it really accomplish anything? Or is it too muddled to really have anything clear or concise to say?
The Circle is the new techno-paranoia thriller from director James Ponsoldt, who has directed a lot of quieter, more somber films in the past like Smashed about the strained relationship between an alcoholic man and his wife attempting to get clean and The End of the Tour featuring a tale of a five-day interview between a Rolling Stone Magazine reporter and David Foster Wallace. Here he takes on a plot that is becoming more and more cliched by the year. Because Ponsoldt is more used to intense indie character studies, he feels completely out of place to direct a film like this. Why not grab a more visionary director? This is just very plain. The film does ponder several questions. What limits do we put on technology? When does it become an invasion of privacy rather than something that will help those in need or assist in preventing crimes? These are all questions that can be used to great effect in some films and they seem to be an easy crutch to produce at least mildly entertaining results in film but here it falls flat.
What is the film even about? In the midst of temping at a number of call centers and helping her mother (Glenne Headley) take care of her ill father (Bill Paxton), Mae Holland (Emma Watson) finally receives a phone call that will change her life – she has an interview at a utopian haven known as “The Circle.” They are on the forefront of technology and are widely regarded as being ahead of the technological curve. Mae lands the job and looks up to her new bosses, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), who guide her through the company as she eventually becomes the first person to become completely “transparent” and broadcasts all her daily activities on a 24/7 cycle. She eventually starts to become suspicious of some of the privacy rhetoric that the company is throwing around though…
Let’s start with some of the most problematic material in this film. The actual time setting of the movie seems to be some sort of alternative reality. The company known as “The Circle” (which is basically a mash-up of Google, Apple and Facebook) has all these exciting new technologies that they start to bestow upon the world throughout the film. Herein lies one of the major problems: most of these technologies are already a reality. Is the film trying to suggest that by painting these technologies as so “out-there” and “advanced” it is holding up a mirror to society by showing us that we are already at this level or at least close to this level? If so, the film never makes it entirely clear which ends up being a problem throughout the entire production.
The movie also has way too many focal points and doesn’t ever really find one to get a good firm grasp on at any point. Is it a criticism of invasion of privacy due to technology? Sure and it makes that very clear but we also get a million B and C plots and some are wrapped up in such a half-hearted way that it is impossible to get behind the movie and care about any of them. For instance and this is a bit of a SPOILER ALERT but there is a major death scene in the film and after it happens, that is it. There are no law enforcement involved and no real lasting repercussions because the film lazily skips to several days later so we don’t get all that pesky character development stuff.
A lot of critics have mentioned the weak performances in the film and while it is fair to criticize some of the acting in this movie, there are a few performers that are just fine and in one case, a lot better than the rest of the film. Tom Hanks is terrific in the few scenes he inhabits and it’s just a shame that he stands out in a movie so bad. Here he does something different rather than being the charming Steve Jobs-like character that obviously contains a wave of cynicism, he portrays the character more as a father figure and never really whoops it up or goes over-the-top into a caricature. This just proves once again that Hanks can easily rise above material and make it his own. Patton Oswalt also plays menacing in a surprisingly convincing way despite that I and many others are so used to seeing him on a stage telling jokes about chicken bowls. Emma Watson has been chastised for her part but she can only do so much with what she is given. Often times she has a blank look on her face and seems to be reaching for emotions that the film just simply doesn’t allow her to provide in the moment. The same can be said for smaller parts by John Boyega and the late Bill Paxton with the latter suffering from MS throughout the film, making his part a little bit more chilling. Ellar Coltrane was fairly good in Boyhood but he was awful in this film and his delivery was so strange and stilted. Glenne Headley as Mae’s mother also felt incredibly forced in her approach to the part.
The film also felt like it had two distinctive sections that didn’t really go hand-in-hand or maybe the editing of these scenes was just odd. For instance, Mae already begins suspecting problems and issues within “The Circle” within the first 45 minutes of the movie but then when she becomes all too aware of these issues, suddenly she’s rising through the ranks and sees no problem with any of it. This is such a strange way to plot the film out as you would normally expect to see the doubts and suspicion happen and lead to the turn in plot later on in the movie. Having it come up once before the character does a 180 and then having it come up again later is lazy, inconsistent and strange writing. They do attempt to insert a reason why she would suddenly change her tune but it’s weak and under-written.
This could have been real good. Although I have heard that the book is not great, they could have improved things from the source material and if they had a more clear and concise message, this could have been at least good. This might seem like a really low rating to give the film because Hanks’ performance is really good and the film certainly isn’t boring for the most part but it falls on its face so often that it’s impossible to recommend it in any way.
RATING: * ½
Less than * (Actively offensive to one’s intelligence)
* (Brutal; bottom-of-the-barrel)
** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)
*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)
**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)
***** (Flawless; a true achievement)