I don’t know about you, but when I see that Emma Watson and Tom Hanks are going to be in the same movie, I immediately assume that’s a movie worth watching. The Circle has them as the leads and then surrounds them with a great supporting cast, including: Karen Gillan (obligatory mention that my wife and I met her at a recent comic-con), Patton Oswalt, John Boyega and Bill Paxton. That’s a lot of talent on the screen but all that means is you spend the entire movie wondering what on earth attracted all that talent to…this.
The Circle has a good idea at its core. Mae Holland (Watson) gets a call from her friend Annie (Gillan) who says she got Mae an interview at her place of work, The Circle, a ridiculously huge tech company that seems one step away from running the entire planet. It’s Facebook and Google, rolled together and multiplied by 1000. Mae immediately seems skeptical of the whole operation as everyone has clearly drank the Circle Kool-Aid and at the end of her first week on the job, the head of the company, Eamon Bailey (Hanks) announces his plans for the SeeChange program, which involves planting a whole lot of tiny cameras all around the world to keep track of, well everything.
I liked the idea of Mae slowly discovering the nefarious business plans lurking within the walls of The Circle. Sure it’s not exactly ground-breaking to go after companies like Facebook and their sometimes sketchy business practices, but it could make for an entertaining thriller if executed well. Unfortunately after presenting an intriguing premise in the first act (a scene where two employees cheerfully chastise Mae for not participating in more “optional” activities within the company is an early highlight that remains one of the few highlights), you get to spend the next 90 minutes watching the movie completely fumble every aspect of that initial promise.
My biggest issue is the character of Mae. In the beginning, she is clearly meant to be the one sane voice inside the company, outside of Boyega’s character who has a total of about 5 minutes of screen time. She is resistant in the beginning, but then with very little provocation (she gets in a kayaking accident and is saved because the SeeChange cameras saw her steal a kayak and go into unsafe waters), goes all in on The Circle in a way that is cartoonishly over the top. She agrees to wear a tiny camera and be the first person to live with total transparency, broadcasting her life to the world 24/7. At first this felt like an unsettling punishment for her actions, but she takes to the whole thing almost immediately, cheerfully intruding on her parents lives without seeming to get the not at all subtle hint that her parents are absolutely not into this. Just a few scenes later she is pitching far more intrusive measures The Circle could take to weasel their way into every aspect of peoples’ lives. Then a few scenes later she is against them again. There’s an appealing arc in there somewhere but the progression feels jumpy. Watson is good, as she almost always is, but Mae seems more like a device to thrust the plot forward then an actual character.
Speaking of plot, there is surprisingly little of it overall. There isn’t really anything at stake. Mae isn’t in danger and The Circle isn’t plotting to blow up a country or anything truly nefarious. Their tactics are shady but they aren’t evil. She could just quit the job and nothing terrible would really happen. The lack of a real story turns this into a character study for a group of one dimensional characters that aren’t worth studying. Boyega exists to spout exposition. Hanks is engaging only because it’s Tom Hanks and not because of anything his character is saying or doing. Mercer’s (Ellar Coltrane, the Boyhood boy who I remember being a better actor but to be fair, he isn’t done any favours with the dialogue he’s forced to spout) there to be the childhood friend of Mae’s who tries to tell her she is heading down a dark path but all of his big scenes are so over-the-top they fall directly into unintentional comedy.
There’s potential in The Circle and promise is shown in the first half hour but then things fall apart at an alarming rate. I got some laughs out of it (ones that were definitely not intended by the filmmakers) but I did end up having to watch this in two sittings which says a lot as it’s not a particularly long movie. All of the actors here deserve better than this.