The Circle (2017)
Director: James Ponsoldt
Screenwriters: Dave Eggers, James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Karen Gillan, Glenne Headly, Patton Oswalt, Bill Paxton
The latest film to star Emma Watson (Harry Potter; Beauty and the Beast) comes via Netflix and James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel “The Circle”. With several hits already under their belts for this calendar year, and one of the most star-studded casts in its history, could the streaming giants turned mega-power distributors maintain their high batting average or was this film a swing and a miss?
In short… it was one heck of a miss.
The Circle is the sort of picture that had a lot of potential – it was a cautionary tale regarding internet privacy, attempted to cover our afflictions with technology (both social and personal), and it was released in a contemporary landscape filled with people, businesses and services promising us that their way is the right way, often actioning such without our knowing consent (a huge theme in the film) – yet the finished product was uninteresting. Vapid. The entire production felt uninspired and underwhelming, as if someone had promised to unravel the mysteries of the universe only to show you a YouTube conspiracy video. Of course, The Circle was photographed more artistically, but the effect was a lasting one.
Perhaps the most exhausting aspect of The Circle was its dull screenplay and the almost juvenile way in which it tackled its complex subject matter and related contemporary issues. The story followed Emma Watson’s twenty-something customer assistant Mae whose live-at-home lifestyle was traded in for the university-like experience of working at “The Circle”, a mini society packed into an ovular-shaped island. Upon starting her new job, Mae would become privy to the increasingly invasive means by which her company were “offering services” to its customers, only briefly pausing to question the absurdity of such when coming into contact with enigmatic cohort Ty (John Boyega – The Force Awakens) or childhood friend turned underdeveloped love interest Mercer (Ellar Coltrane – Boyhood). Seas of people were photographed in elation at the announcements of said invasive technologies, the presentations of such being set at bullet pointed intervals throughout the screenplay in what required an absurd suspension of disbelief to truly buy into. Could it be possible that we’re all so stupid? That none of us value privacy or can question technology’s foray into it? According to The Circle, that’s not only possible, but an absolute fact that only the enlightened and the humble can see past – the enlightened and the humble being the screenwriters who believe they’re opening our minds to this age-old debate, and the mindless sheep being us… the public that the movie represents in the most basic if not reductive way.
Perhaps the biggest casualty of this poorly developed story and the bemusing metaphors beneath it, is co-screenwriter and director James Ponsoldt whose career prior to this movie had featured a top-to-bottom feature-filmography of quality pictures. The director of The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, two independent films universally beloved by critics and audiences alike, had developed a career out of presenting identifiable and layered characters in character-driven pieces, stepping out of this zone for the concept-driven The Circle, thus exposing himself as being much less talented in this respect.
Contrary to Ponsoldt’s previous work, the vast majority of characters in The Circle were lacking any real humanity that was worthy of investment, with each of the movie’s central and supporting characters being significantly underdeveloped. Recognisable and talented actors like John Boyega, Ellar Coltrane, Karen Gillan, Glenne Headly and Patton Oswalt each felt like needless additions inserted by studio big-wigs to bring eyes to the product, with the only standouts being Tom Hanks as Tom Hanks (the falsely nice leader of “The Circle”) and the late, great Bill Paxton, whose MS-suffering father character was perhaps the only likeable person in the entire movie.
Emma Watson was, of course, the movie’s focal point, and Ponsoldt did do an adequate job of telling the tale through her character’s eyes. Watson however, fresh off the $1Billion success of Beauty and the Beast, appeared largely absent in her role, delivering lines with a sloppiness undeserving of her calibre and expressing only mild discomfort or happiness at any given time, seemingly perfecting the Kristen Stewart brand of sigh-acting her way through projects she’s uninterested in. As a result, she didn’t come across like someone worth routing for, resulting in the feeling that Paxton’s character and performance could have brought more weight to the movie’s overall story arc, resulting in a film with at least a small amount of gravitas.
Aesthetically, The Circle was no more than a mixed bag either. It started well, presenting the San Francisco Bay in a golden glow as Watson’s Mae kayaked her way into the vast expanse of water, but it soon faltered in its CG interpretation of the island upon which “The Circle” was situated, and its CG-heavy scenes from that moment on only became worse. Even Ponsoldt’s typically flowing camera movements at moments of spiritual awakening or revolution were absent courtesy of the way the filmmaker had boxed himself in via his screenplay’s situational reliance upon unmovable sets. Only on very few occasions did Ponsoldt’s true artistic flair speak through the camera, as unfortunately he was reduced to a glorified concert and presentation recorder for most of this film.
The Circle is, then, best described as an almost insulting modern recreation of 1984, featuring some below par acting, average photography and a screenplay that missed the mark in quite a tragically glorious fashion. To those new to Ponsoldt’s work, I’d suggest checking out his better earlier films, as The Circle is dull and unworthy of your time. Watch 1984, Network or The Truman Show instead.