The Circle (2017) (Review)

Katy Perry commemorated the release of her fourth studio album, Witness, with a 96-hour livestream. Across the four day event, Perry was broadcast live for the world to see, with fans attaining unique access to her life, witnessing everything from cooking lessons, socialising with her friends, mediation and yoga and therapy sessions. The remarkable event lured in 49 million users from over 190 countries and helped push the 'Firework' singer over 100 million followers on Twitter, meaning she became the first ever person to achieve this milestone. 'Nathan, we came to read a review of Emma Watson's new film The Circle...', you may be shouting at your screen, but that dump of information (about an album you should definitely go and buy/stream, depending on what the cool kids do nowadays) will feed into an important point I'll be making further into this review...

Mae Holland (Watson), thanks to an influential friend, manages to snag a job at The Circle, a powerful internet corporation co-founded by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt).  Beginning with a simple job in customer relations, Mae quickly rises on the company's ladder and is eventually selected for an assignment to trial the Circle's latest technology. Coming to realise the implications of the new technology on the future of humanity, her adoration rapidly becomes a great fear, as questions regarding privacy, surveillance and fundamental freedom are questioned and threatened by Circle's new, possibly lethal innovation.

Dave Eggers' 2013 novel of the same name lays the foundations for this techno-thriller (although it would appear that many artistic liberties have been taken), with the original author offering a hand to co-write and adapt the novel alongside the film's director, James Ponsoldt. After its box office underperformance and critical panning in North America, Netflix, rather ironically, took the film under its wing as a site exclusive. As we all understand, the technological landscape is continually evolving, meaning that when the novel was written and eventually released, the world was a completely different place; thus, by the time The Circle arrives with us, four years have passed and we are considering a future that has, arguably, already passed us by. In the world of 24-hour live streaming, Facebook live and Snapchat stories, most things presented to us in the film are already a reality, available to fuel humanity's desperate need for a constant cycle of updates. We've been there, we've done that, so The Circle is stale and pointless. Even Netflix itself was operating on a much smaller scale during the novel planning and production process, demonstrating just how quickly this industry evolves; in aiming for a near-future, dystopian-esque world, the filmmakers have missed the boat and allowed the world they dramatise to pass them by.

In all honesty, that would be excusable if the film could at least manage to explore the human condition and the wide-spread implications of this increasingly evasive technology in a satisfying manner - but it does not. Bubbling under the surface are intriguing themes that are either completely ignored or only lightly scratched at, never providing the bite the commentary so desperately needs to be a success. While I cannot comment on Eggers' source material, the film's screenplay is inconsistent  tonally and cannot decide on how to frame the characters and present plot developments, struggling to string it all together in a cohesive or entertaining way.  It literally alters between being painfully on the nose (explicitly obvious and referential) to being far too ambiguous (either because it cannot make up its mind or because it simply runs out of ideas) in the space of a few scenes. It simply boils down to the weakness of the script, playing with an idea that the writers seem to have given up with half way through the page-to-screen translation process.

Like an Instagram filter though, the film's palette and cinematography accentuates some of the colour and luscious setting, making it look fairly pretty actually. James Ponsoldt's direction is solid, with an appropriate use of footage taken from different devices, if only to emphasise the technology angle in case it had gone amiss on audiences. Some shots, painfully, fail to match up and no scenes springs to mind as particularly noteworthy - but it is an otherwise capable job by Ponsoldt, who at least attempts to alleviate some of the film's issues. Danny Elfman, a very talented composer, provides a decent if unspectacular soundtrack for the film, scoring moments appropriately. Unfortunately, much like the film though, it is all a bit forgettable.

The Circle's cast again formulate a semi-decent effort to distract from the screenplay and narrative issues; Emma Watson is tolerable and the accent is not quite as grating as everyone made it out to be; Tom Hanks is underused, appearing in a glorified 'recurring' capacity, opposed to the starring role the 'name above the title' would have you believe; Karen Gillian does a formidable job with what she is given to work with, attempting to detail Annie through her own natural charm; while John Boyega could have been written out entirely - in fact, I'm not too sure what he was doing at all, other than being horrendously cryptic. Seriously, can someone clear that up for me? Rather than the individual actors, the biggest disservice provided, once again, is the script: a central relationship, so crucial for a third-act development, is practically non-existent. What should have been an aching moment for audiences and characters alike registers no more than a light sigh, because, by the time the dreadful third act rolls by, we simply do not care. We couldn't give a hoot about the will-they, won't-they relationship because the writers have not dedicated any time to flesh it out in a natural, earnest way; it is as redundant as the film itself.

In reference to my opening ramblings about Katy Perry, we are already living in the dystopian time The Circle attempts to dramatise, as she demonstrated last month; the world Perry gave us access to through her Witness World Wide weekend illustrated the once unfathomable possibilities technology offered us and while inherently geared for positive in this instance, it can no doubt be abused and misused. The Teenage Dream popstar invited fans into her world for the weekend and while the livestream itself was turned off 96 hours later, the social media footprint would not be; the therapy sessions and meditation classes are immortalised forevermore, most likely in bitesize gif and meme form, or through clickbait-y headlines reminding of our every online movements, at all times. The Circle fails not only because it arrives with us way past its sell-by-date (which the screenplay does nothing to help) but because its doesn't have the confidence, means or understanding to push themes and ideas further; simply, it never considers more than a future we have already arrived in and is the cinematic pinnacle of unfulfilled potential. While the direction and performances are passable, little else convinces us that The Circle is anything other than stale film-making.


Summary: The Circle's attempt to depict a future we are already living in renders it completely pointless and stale; it hints at interesting ideas only to watch mercilessly as the screenplay sends it crashing into an abysmal third act. Think of the worst Black Mirror episode and put The Circle below it.