The Circle (2017)

“Do you think you do better or worse when you are being watched?”

Not all stories require or need happy endings. Memories of messages seem to linger longer when drenched in a negative dread rather than when they’re air-mailed in bubble wrap and Styrofoam peanuts and a fragile stamp on the side. We recall what’s hard and forget what’s benign. The Circle takes the easy way out – quite literally with its horrendous and rushed ending – by angling this film adaptation of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel towards the kind of resolution that completely rebukes the personality of the original source material while excavating and cross-stitching its structural bones. Something’s amiss from the very get go, and not on purpose either.

The setting is believable while the characters are not. Think along the lines of The Internship’s blatant promotional effort for Google’s cool campus life tinged with a farcical 1984 big brother twist. This is water poured into a cup of motor oil. Our entry point into The Circle’s laid back and ultra high-tech sort of buena vista social club is Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a recent college grad bouncing around temp agency jobs. Long-time friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands Mae an interview, which she nails by being unpredictable and incisively precise. Into the customer service ring she’s thrust, chatting away online, trying to improve her rating while being overwhelmed by the engulfing and all-consuming nature of this company. To work for The Circle is to render yourself over as one with The Circle.

As a naturally anti-social person who relishes my quiet moments of solitude, entering this kind of work force would have been met with my immediate exit interview; not only is alone time discouraged, it’s met with shock and reprehension. Mae wills herself over and submits to the The Circle’s panopticism, in part due to the figurehead Eamon Bailey’s (Tom Hanks) convincing tactics and her increasing role within the company. She becomes an Instagram star of sorts, embracing the company’s new SeeChange technology (tiny, discreet, cost-effective, easily hidden cameras that relay video from every world corner back to The Circle’s database). Mae goes transparent – wearing a camera and interacting with “fans” – while also dragging her parents (Bill Paxton & Glenne Headly) and old friend-zoned fling Mercer (a droll, unexcitable Ellar Coltrane) into the mix. What happens is technically drama, but not for a second is it the least bit dramatically effective.

John Boyega plays a fellow Circler with a massive secret that bears all the weight of life on the moon; the character holds echoes of reason bellowed from a cadaver given little spirit by Boyega. Maybe, despite being cast in the new Star Wars series, this young man can’t actually dig deep into the psyche of his roles. Much of the same can be said for the rest of the performances and crew as well, though. Watson and Hanks are ho-hum in characters too frequently explaining exposition and too infrequently relying on taciturn methods. At once English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s omnipotent social theory on an anorexic diet while also director James Ponsoldt’s first unarguably bad movie, The Circle cuts corners every step of the way, jogging slow-paced laps around deeply rooted themes that are either picked before they’re ready for harvest or overgrown by patches of prickly weeds. Debunking and criminalizing this level of utilitarianism feels right – especially in our current political climate attempting to defect from net neutrality and promote big business – but The Circle executes all of its ideas like a drunken chef. What we get is a miscalculated mess, butchered by poor knife skills in the editing bay, ending with dessert when a savory note would have better served the story.

“Things at The Circle…they need to change.”

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

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