Let’s cut to the chase: The Circle is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s so shockingly flat, logically flawed, emotionally vapid, and astoundingly awkward that its end credits felt like a cruel prank. How is it possible that this movie stars such charming screen presences as Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, John Boyega and Tom Fucking Hanks, and is still less exciting than watching broadcast static? How has it passed that Dave Eggers wrote humane and daring books like Zeitoun, What Is The What, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, only to create a story and adapted screenplay this tone-deaf and bland? How is it possible that acclaimed indie director James Ponsoldt gave us the sparkling Spectacular Now, the stirring Smashed, and the challenging End of Tour only to seem to forget everything he knew about human emotion, character arcs, and simple film structure to create this? How was $18 million spent on an independent film this short-sighted and stupid?
I’m genuinely at a loss. But I’ll try to retrace the steps where so much went so wrong. Be warned major spoilers ahead.
Based on Eggers’ novel of the same name (which full disclosure I have not read and will not ever), The Circle stars Watson as Mae, a vaguely ambitious young woman who is elated to get a job at the titular tech/interweb organization that seems like a mash-up of Facebook, Google, and Apple. She’s not an engineer or a web designer, or singled out as being particularly tech inclined in any way. Yet, with the help of good fortune and a very flexible moral code, Mae quickly goes from an unknown “guppy” (Circler slang for “new kid”) to the cryptic corporation’s world-known poster girl, allowing online audiences near complete access to her every waking moment through the surveillance of scads of tiny, hidden cameras.
It’s cool though. Mae consented to absolutely surrender her privacy (save for three-minutes of timed bathroom breaks). But her family and Nice Guy friend Mercer (Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane) actually value their privacy! So they eventually distance themselves from Mae and the cult-like corporate culture that demands she social media her entire existence, live and play on Circle’s campus, and generally behave like a perky PR rep at all times. But hey, who could have predicted there’s a dark side to this kind of transparency and exposure? Like not only virtually walking in on your parents banging, but also accidentally live-streaming that image across the web to an audience of snarky commenters and salacious screengrabbers!
After that, her parents avoid Mae, explaining they love her, but they need their privacy back. Mae nods in seeming acceptance, but then surrenders the privacy of her off-the-grid buddy Mercer, using a new Circle innovation that encourages randos to stalk him. It’s a tool meant to help track criminals on the lam. But hell, why not use it to hunt the estranged friend who told you directly to your face they wanted nothing to do with this privacy-invading internet shit?
You might think Mae learns her lesson once this tawdry PR ploy ends badly—and here’s where I spoil the big twist—when overzealous Circle users unintentionally chase Mercer off a bridge! He full on dies because Mae wouldn’t respect his privacy. So, four days later, she returns to The Circle to get justice. And by justice I mean on her bosses (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt), not hold herself accountable in any way.
Through a big Steve Jobs-like presentation—a tedious recurring element with diminishing returns-Mae unleashes a confounding plan that’s bad news for her bosses, making public their secret emails, which will likely get them arrested for ambiguous reasons. But a final montage reveals she didn’t bring down The Circle’s plot for wide-scale surveillance. She still seems to buy the company line about how surveillance makes people accountable, even as she steals a kayak on camera, embarrasses her parents, and gets a guy killed, but faces no charges, punishment or repercussions. Despite the fact that robbing her parents and old friend of their privacy made the former a worldwide punchline and the latter dead, Mae has the gall to smile and wave as drones buzz overhead her solo kayaking trip. The tone is victorious, as if this is a happy ending where Mae learned a lesson and so was redeemed, even as the seeming message about the importance of privacy is blithely ignored. Instead, the message is Big Brother is only there to make you a better person, because “secrets are lies.” That there is as deep as this flick gets, which is to say as shallow as a baby pool.
Ultimately, The Circle plays like the worst possible Black Mirror episode imaginable. There’s little insight into how people use technology today. Characters who relish in social media are portrayed as clowns, despite the fact that Mae soon surpasses them in their zeal. And when she becomes the ultimate webcam girl, the movie becomes flooded with floating text bubbles from commenters watching her livestream. Meaning the audience is subjected to the most basic responses of scorn and praise (yet noticeably minus any profanity or popular web slang) along with derailing nonsense commentary like, “eating cheese from last year.” Because in the middle of a dramatic moment, where Mae is trying to assess the ramifications of her actions, the movie’s audience should definitely be chuckling about a non-character’s cheese-eating habits.
Further frustrating is how everyone in this movie is uncharacteristically bad. Performer chemistry is so wonky scene to scene, moment to moment that it often seems as if the stars were shot apart and cut together in a hurry. There’s rarely any sense that the people onscreen are listening to each other. Characters are one-note, often existing just to mouth off sloppy personal philosophies at Mae, in lieu of any in-depth exploration of themes of privacy or how technology has brought the world together, yet allows friends and family to fall out of touch. Instead, Tom Hanks talks broadly about big ideas like how mass surveillance will keep everyone accountable and honest, making no mention of how a total loss of privacy might unhinge lives. Karen Gillan struts about in chic clothes and a jaunty bob to embody the cool persona of The Circle, then she’s shoved into a stilted shuffle, grungy sweats, and a lank and greasy hairdo to show how her high-pressure job is not-so-secretly killing her. It’s a turn so sharp it’s the stuff of daytime soaps. And as a big fan of her work on Doctor Who, I am absolutely perplexed that she manages little more than a flash of charm and shrill shouting in this role.
John Boyega pops by for a few brief scenes, playing a loner who is inexplicably drawn to Mae, and instantly entrusts her with loads of top-secret Circle info. But mostly, his character is a shadow to look down (literally) on Mae as she presents more and more dubious presentations, and then the sloppy Deus Ex Machina device for her weird revenge. Meanwhile, Coltrane delivers a performance devoid of nuance, either glowering at Mae or barking at her in a tone so unnatural and flat it sparked titters of laughter at the press screening when he shouted, “I’m getting death threats!…Death. Threats. Mae.”
Yet, much of The Circle’s heavy-lifting is on Watson. And weighed down by a senseless script barnacled by sloppy tech slang, lazy exposition lines, and mind-numbing pseudo-intellectual chatter, she is crushed under the weight of it. Not even this charming English ingenue could make reckless Mae likable. Watson’s American accent is atrociously awkward, being too precise in its diction, never relaxed enough to believe her as a breezy California girl. It rings false, perhaps fitting as so too does the film’s messages, emotional beats, and denouement.
In the end, The Circle is a movie that is emotionally dead, intellectually vapid, and otherwise just dull. It doesn’t even have the decency to be so bad that its failing is amusing.