How Bad Is…The Circle (2017)?
Not only did Tom Hanks NOT get an Oscar nomination this year, he made this convoluted mess of a film. I guess 2017 was officially a shit year for everybody.
Every have an idea for a story that you thought was amazing, but when you wrote it down it turned out to be a convoluted mess of half-baked ideas? The people behind this movie sure did! The Circle wants to be a scathing social critique along the lines of 1984, but it also is afraid to come off as alarmist, so it winds up being a pretty little nothing of a movie that hasn’t got anything new or insightful to say about social media, surveillance states, or personality cults. Boy, I bet you’re excited to hear more about it!
The Circle (2017).
Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is a new graduate droning away in thankless temp jobs that barely pay the bills. She is given what she believes is the opportunity of a lifetime by an old friend to work for The Circle, a tech firm that is revolutionizing social connectivity. Led by the enigmatic Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) The Circle believes in total immersion in social media. Every action and thought should be shared with the world. To this end, all employees live on campus in a technological utopia where every moment is online. As Mae moves up the ladder, she meets a young man (John Boyega) who warns her that everything is not as wonderful as it seems at The Circle.
What Went Right?
- The film is loaded with talent.
Every role in The Circle is filled by a top-notch actor, even many surprising bit parts. The script may not give them a ton to work with, but their natural talent makes the characters they play seem much deeper than the actual material warrants. This actually becomes a double edged sword as players such as Watson, Patton Oswalt, and John Boyega give such intriguing performances that it becomes maddening when the script does nothing with them!
- The cinematography bleeds sunshine and futurism.
The setting of sunny California and Silicon Valley comes through bright and clear in the cinematography. The Circle compound is an ingenious creation, part college campus, part mini-mall and part technophile’s wet dream. The colors pop on everything, and even when we are taken into the shadowy depths of the compound there are colors and lights galore.
- It can at least see the shoreline of some big ideas.
I can’t seem to come up with any praise for The Circle that isn’t a backhanded insult. There are so many high-concept sparks swirling around, but they never catch fire. This film is like a photographer who has arrived at a remote garden where all of the flowers are about to bloom in a once-in-a-lifetime event…who then turns his camera around to take a banal selfie instead of capturing the wondrous event. I guess it’s a feat that they even found their way into the garden in the first place, right?
What Went Wrong?
- The movie wastes its talent and characters.
If you have a stable of tremendous talent, you have to do something with it. Unfortunately, the characters in this film are mostly threadbare caricatures and one-note stereotypes. Tom Hanks seems to be playing Steve Jobs because that’s the easiest way for this script to say “he’s the tech genius.” Mae’s friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) is a stereotypical hayseed because the script needs to contrast his tech free life with Mae’s new always on life. Mae’s parents, played by Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly, are poor. That’s all you get or need for their minimal impact on the story. Oh, he’s sick. So I guess you get two things bout them.
Emma Watson tries so very hard to make Mae multifaceted and complex. At certain points she looks like she just might be realizing that this place is weird. But it doesn’t materialize and she just keeps drinking the Kool Aid. Having her grimace every once in a while after the sip doesn’t make her character interesting.
- Everybody is awful but there’s no villain.
Another consequence of the thin characters is that they’re all pretty much terrible human beings. The Circle employees are such fanatics for the cause that they only ever talk about one thing: how great being connected to The Circle all the time is. They are so cringe-inducing that they’d make a room full of Jehovah’s Witnesses want to strangle them. Mercer is supposed to be a counterpoint to these tech cultists, but he just comes off as a Luddite dope. Mae’s parents opt out of becoming Circle jerks™ but not because they’re smart enough to spot a cult when the see it, but because they’re full of stubborn blue collar pride. Nobody is likable or acts like an actual person.
This is a shame, because this facile story about losing your individuality to corporate/tech worship needs a villain badly. Tom Hanks is set up to be the big baddie, but the stupid plot forgets to make him actually do anything bad. The story is so wishy washy about taking a stand on the issue of privacy that they even give him an out: his son is paralyzed so he wants to have everyone share their lives so people like his son can vicariously experience it. That…actually sounds reasonable! At the end we see Emma out his super secret evil plans…without telling us what they are…and then she goes and takes over the company… and not only doesn’t repudiate Eamon, she doubles down on his vision. What the fuck?
- The Circle hasn’t got anything insightful to say about its subject.
The Circle tries to be so broad-minded about its “allegory” that it forgets to actually have a message. It would seem on the face of it that all-encompassing digital access is a gross evil that needs to be resisted, but the film gives quite a bit of mitigating evidence to the contrary. Being constantly monitored actually helps treat Mae’s father’s illness. Mae’s life is saved because the omnipresent cameras spot her in trouble when she’s kayaking. The frenzy to connect everyone kills Mercer…but it also catches a wanted fugitive, so you know, it’s kind of a wash.
Right up until the end the movie tries to have it both ways: Mae accepts John Boyega’s help to out Eamon, but then announces that she’s going to do what he was doing, but more thoroughly. This isn’t a woke young hero overthrowing a shady businessman, it’s a deranged true-believer ousting a false priest because he’s not zealous enough. If this movie is a modern spin on 1984, it ends with Wilson Smith taking the role of Big Brother because he doesn’t believe there are ENOUGH cameras watching everyone.
Integrating social media is a thorny issue, but this movie’s contribution to the discussion is asinine. It’s like a group of scholars were debating the morality of the issue and this movie walks over like a dipshit and chips in “well, you know this stuff is kinda good AND bad.” Thanks, asshole, couldn’t have gotten to that conclusion without you and your two hour movie.
How Bad Is It?
The Circle isn’t so bad you’ll walk out of it. It’s well-shot, decently paced, and filled with good actors who manage to be engaging while struggling to do something with their weak characters. It’s only at the end that you’ve been watching this whole movie waiting for it to say something, anything, that could register as thought provoking, that the anger sets in. After having wasted two hours of your life on a hokey story that is filled with lazy characters, the lack of any real message is infuriating. James Ponsoldt, who directed the fantastic The End of the Tour, is better than this. I don’t have much patience for David Eggers, who wrote the book and co-wrote this with Ponsoldt, and even he is better than this.
The Circle is not worth wasting your time with. It’s a freshmen level take on issues that you’re virtually guaranteed to have a better grasp of by dint of not having seen this film. Otherwise, its a fluffy exercise in painfully obvious allegory that has the audacity to waste a whole movie setting up straw-men without having the good grace to at least beat the stuffing out of them.