I normally have no patience for films that “play it safe,” so to speak. I grow bored when a movie merely conforms to genre conventions and does little more than give the audience exactly what they expect, however satisfying the experience may be. In the case of “The Circle,” I would have preferred to have gotten the film I expected. It would have been more entertaining and made more sense, at least. A dull, incoherent tech-thriller (I use the term “thriller” loosely, since there are no thrills or moments of suspense), the film wastes a talented cast, fails to execute the basic concepts of storytelling, and falls far short of already low expectations.
The film follows Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a young woman working temp jobs who, through her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), lands a customer relations job at the mega-successful Internet corporation, The Circle. Though initially taken aback by the company’s off-putting vibe, Mae is eventually endeared thanks to the charisma of the corporations head and co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and her and her family being put on The Circle’s health plan, which helps with her father’s (the late Bill Paxton) multiple sclerosis. Though an encounter with a fellow employee, Ty (John Boyega), raises her suspicions again.
At least, I think that’s what happens. I can’t be sure, since director James Ponsoldt (who co-wrote the script with Dave Eggers, author of the novel the film is based on), seems to be lazily throwing plot points together and hoping they make sense. It’s impossible to discern any of the characters motivations or why they do the things they do. Mae seems skeptical of The Circle initially, even going so far as to make jokes about “drinking the Koo-Aid” with Ty, but a few scenes later she seems to be drinking said Kool-Aid herself, with nary a reason given for such a dramatic shift in attitude. And Hanks’ Eamon Bailey, ostensibly the film’s antagonist, is less a character than a simulacrum of various tech entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs. Despite being an important character, we know next to nothing about him besides him being an uber-successful Internet tycoon. He has no inner life, despite Hanks’ valiant effort to give him some personality, and he has no discernable reason for wanting to achieve the nefarious goal he is after. Or is it nefarious? I don’t know and neither does the film, since Bailey is more an idea than a person.
Or rather, he would be if the film had any actual ideas on its mind. “The Circle” strives for the kind of social commentary and allegorical significance that Orwell achieved with “1984,” but it has none of the paranoid terror and intelligence that makes that novel a classic. Instead, “The Circle” sets up a half-baked premise for a cliché moral parable, doesn’t explore said premise to its fullest, and ultimately cops out by trying to play it both ways with the conclusions its reaches. The logical destination of the films thematic journey means it would resolve with a very anti-technology message. But as if sensing that this might not go over well with a 21st century audience, Eggers and Ponsoldt chicken out and try extol the virtues of technological ubiquity. It makes for a confusing and amateurish film, one where the description of “sophomoric bro-losophising” would be overly generous and give it more credit than it deserves.