The Circle may just be the most baffling film of 2017. This is a film that had it all—a stellar cast, which includes the likes of Emma Watson (Harry Potter), Tom Hanks (Sully), Patton Oswalt (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Bill Paxton (Twister), John Boyega (The Force Awakens), and Karen Gillan (Doctor Who); a fantastic director in James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour); and a wonderful source in the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers—and yet it never gelled together.
Maligned by critics and fans upon its theatrical release earlier this year, The Circle came and went without making any sort of splash. Earning just $20 million from the box office, it just barely made back its $18 million budget. It’s the kind of benign theatrical film that sometimes finds new life on home video to become a cult favorite, and maybe that’s possible here.
Maybe, but I doubt it. The Circle is complete absent the level of shlock that typically makes for a fun cult favorite and is presented as super-serious take on the growing dangers of a post-privacy world. Watson plays Mae, a young woman who thinks she’s found her dream job after being hired at the hottest tech company in the world, The Circle. Under the leadership of Eamon Bailey (Hanks), The Circle has grown from a social media company to a powerful tech empire with dreams of ensuring that their products—most recently, tiny cameras that can easily blend into any background—are literally on every corner. After a near death experience that finds Mae saved only because authorities were notified of her endangerment thanks to one of these tiny new cameras, Mae agrees to take part in an experiment where she broadcasts the details of her life 24/7 as a lesson in pure transparency.
A decent and timely premise, no doubt, but unfortunately all The Circle does is plant seeds without giving them the opportunity to grow. In that regard, it’s almost worth watching as a lesson in what could go wrong. A great cast, director, and source are meaningless if you can’t settle on a tone, and the tone of The Circle changes almost from scene to scene.
One moment, it’s a Truman Show-esque satire that explores the meaning of individuality and privacy in the modern age and the next it’s a wannabe cyber thriller—only, not one of the good cyber thrillers like Enemy of the State, but one of the shallow, hokey cyber thrillers like The Net or Hackers. But even that’s not right because both The Net and Hackers have a kind of so-bad-it’s-good charm about them. Watching them now, from our 2017 vantage point, it’s easy to get nostalgic for that age, before the internet was ubiquitous, back when it was scary.
And who knows. In 2040, we may look back on The Circle and appreciate its naïve charms. Perhaps by then, the annoying trend of putting text from computer screens and chatrooms on the screen next to the characters will have become a quaint reminder of the way films used to be made.
The bad of The Circle is even more frustrating because of the potential shown by the good. Taken individually, many of the scenes well constructed and show genuine promise. The problem is that none of them feel congruous with each other. Boyega is introduced but forgotten about for most of the movie. Interesting ideas about the concept of privacy are hinted at, but never fleshed out fully enough to make the point clear. Ponsoldt’s direction is intriguing when dealing with two characters one on one, but the vast number of lifeless crowd scenes derail the good will he earns.
As a depiction of modern corporate America, Ponsoldt does a good job at depicting both the allure of working for a powerful tech company and the problems with how corporations view their place in the world. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where you might want a job with The Circle. Who wouldn’t want to work for Tom Hanks? But as a satire it’s both declawed and neutered. The propositions made by the film like, for instance, linking your social media accounts to your ability to vote, are harrowing, but never are they brought to any sort of satisfying conclusion. Horror is hinted at, and then abandoned.
While the acting is solid, you can’t help but feel that something was butchered in the editing room and in reshoots (in fact, they were still busy shooting new material just a few months before the film’s release). It’s fascinating to watch, from an academic standpoint. The Circle feels like a movie made worse in the process of trying to make it better. You can’t help but wonder if there’s not a different cut of this movie out there somewhere that might answer some of the lingering questions you’ll have after watching it.
It’s clear from watching the bare bones special features on the home video release that everyone involved was trying to make a better movie, and I suspect that they probably did. The four-part behind the scenes featurette gives insight into the adaptation process and features some wonderful interviews with the cast and crew that make me excited to see the movie that they thought they were making. Where the disconnect happened it’s hard to pinpoint, but as is The Circle is best viewed as a case study of what can go wrong even with the best of intentions.
The Circle is now available on DVD and Blu-ray