Available right now on Netflix, this 2017 techno-thriller seems to have a lot going for it: a cast that includes Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, John Boyega and Bill Paxton in his final role and a plot focussed on subject matter lifted directly from news headlines. So it’s something of a surprise that it all falls so horribly, clumsily flat.
When Mae Holland (Emma Watson) manages to get a job at tech giant The Circle thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), she can’t believe her luck. As she acclimatises to the company’s way of life, she begins to share more and more of her life with the firm’s social media tools. After the company’s technology is instrumental in saving her life during a foolish kayaking incident, Mae agrees to go ‘completely transparent’, living her life in the open, online, much to the delight of the leaders of the company, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). But The Circle has an agenda, and it doesn’t have Mae’s best interests at heart.
Adapted from his own novel by Dave Eggers, “The Circle” clearly has its critical focus set on the Googles and Facebooks of the world and Mae’s initial introduction into the corporation has more in common with “The Internship” than “The Social Network” although both are clearly present in director James Ponsoldt’s mind as he brings the script to life. It’s in the script the film’s flaws lie, though, and its muddled and incoherent plotting prevents the characters or the narrative from achieving any semblance of momentum and consistency. Ultimately, “The Circle” wants to be a debate on the fundamental principles of privacy versus transparency and while it clearly favours the latter, it offers nothing but logical fallacies in support of it.
It’s Watson’s character who bears the brunt of being mangled in the mismatched cogs of character development and she’s simply not up to the task of making Mae’s seduction by The Circle’s agenda at all convincing, let alone lending any credibility to her position by the end of the movie given everything she’s experienced. None of the expository speeches by any of the characters who deliver them (of which there are more than a few) in defence of a universal surveillance state monopolised by a single corporation would stand up to even the slightest critical cross-examination and, as a result, our heroine comes across as guileless, gullible and utterly lacking in the charisma necessary for her to fulfil the role the story requires. Other characters are simply slapped around arbitrarily by a screenplay which is content to make them do what it needs them to do without investing any time or effort on logical character development or consistency.
Karen Gillan is one of the few cast members to actually try to bring her role to life but her character’s sudden turn for the worse seems to come out of nowhere and has no real impact. Hanks and Oswalt seem unwilling or unable to take their roles as the de facto ‘bad guys’ seriously but then again, the film never really establishes specifically (or generally) whether they are evil, and if they are what they may have done. The late Bill Paxton (in his final screen role) and Glenne Headly (in her penultimate screen appearance) find themselves trapped in a tagged-on Lifetime Movie of The Week subplot which also ensnares “Boyhood”’s Ellar Coltrane but it’s John Boyega who is most wasted in a near pointless role as an off-the-grid co-founder of The Circle who has misgivings about the company’s direction yet allies himself willingly with its profoundly naïve poster child.
There is clearly scope for an intelligent and incisive thriller based around the potential dark side of social media, the intrusive potential of biometric technology and how far we as a society are willing to trade independence and privacy for security and convenience but “The Circle” is not that movie. It’s a slapdash, incompetent waste of two hours of your life which doesn’t just insult your intelligence, it trolls it.