After a successful run on the independent film circuit, director James Ponsoldt seemed poised to become one of the most critically acclaimed directors of his generation. Ponsoldt broke out with the 2012 alcoholism drama Smashed, which led him to bigger projects such as The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, a fruitful partnership with A24 that produced two great films. The latter movies are modern classics, tender, insightful stories told with a sense of humanity and a conversational vibe that leads to the development of great characters. I really understood what Ponsoldt was going for with those two films, and I couldn't wait to see more from the young filmmaker. It's why I listed The Circle as one of my most anticipated films of the year. Sure, I was excited by the prospect of a technological thriller with Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and John Boyega, but I was mostly intrigued to see what Ponsoldt would be able to do with a bigger budget.
Early reviews came in and were overwhelmingly negative, but I maintained some hope that I would find something to enjoy in Ponsoldt's fourth film. Unfortunately, that didn't turn out to be the case. The Circle is an absolute disaster, so dull and messy that it doesn't even feel like a completed film. And to be quite honest with you, I don't know who to blame for this fiasco. As much as I don't want to put the weight of this failure on Ponsoldt, this will likely stand as the director's first major misfire. On every conceivable level, The Circle just does not work. The characters are so thinly written that it's astonishing, Ponsoldt never manages to strike a consistent or effective tone, and the ending is one of the worst I've ever seen. This is a baffling film, and the fact that I don't even know what it was really going for makes it so much worse. Hopefully Ponsoldt can find a way to bounce back from this, but The Circle is the kind of explosive flop that really stings.
In a near future (this is never made clear), human interaction is all controlled through The Circle, an internet corporation that combines various online networks into one giant service. Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is working a dead-end job at a credit card company, but with a little help from a powerful friend (Karen Gillan) at The Circle, she snags an interview for her dream job. She gets the job and begins to work in customer experience, immediately being thrust into the world of this massive tech giant. Mae quickly becomes something of a sensation, striking her fellow Circlers as an enigmatic figure shrouded in mystery. In addition to her job, Mae also has to cope with her father (Bill Paxton), who is dealing with an acute case of MS.
After an unfortunate incident with a kayak and a surprise rescue mission, Mae captures the attention of Circle CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), who decide to use her for a new program. Mae opts to go totally transparent, wearing a camera at all times with millions tracking her every move. But while Mae becomes a superstar and a power player at The Circle, this fresh young "guppie" (the term for new Circlers) is also introduced to the darker secrets of the corporation by Ty LaFitte (John Boyega), the programmer behind Bailey's most popular social networks. As Mae's journey takes a horrifying turn, she'll have to make a decision that will alter the entire world as she knows it.
I didn't read the book by Dave Eggers, so I can't pretend to make a comparison between the film and the novel. But it feels like nobody involved in the making of The Circle knew what the hell they were trying to make, and this isn't the kind of film where the blame can be shifted to studio interference. To put it simply, I'm fairly certain that STX Films and EuropaCorp weren't interfering with Ponsoldt and Eggers, who co-wrote the script. The Circle suffers from a complete lack of vision on both a macro and micro level, missing the big picture of what this film is trying to say while also never managing to create any fascinating characters or even an intriguing story. It's utterly generic and totally disposable, failing in just about every way.
For a film labeled as a mystery/thriller, The Circle certainly isn't very mysterious or thrilling. It has one exciting sequence in the latter half of the film, but it never successfully manages to strike a tone that coincides with its lofty ambitions. Is this movie supposed to be scary and sinister, tricking us into loving this bubbly corporation before revealing the shocking truth? If so, it fails miserably on that front. Is it supposed to be a lesson about friendly fascism, carrying the company's sunny disposition over to the movie itself? This comes closest to describing the experience, but Ponsoldt never crafts anything that feels satirical or ironic. Instead, The Circle is just saddled with a story that doesn't work and an approach that doesn't follow through on the promise of a compelling parable for the tech age. Where it should be scary and provocative, the film fails to even garner the slightest bit of intrigue.
The Circle is very much a film about a woman who is seduced by a shady enterprise who is then forced to rage against the machine when she realizes the terrible truth. But that fairly standard narrative is tough to pull off when you have a character as weak as Emma Watson's Mae Holland. On the surface, there's a lot to work with. She's dealing with a sick parent, her devotion to technology conflicts with her friendships, and she seems to view her new job with both eagerness and skepticism. But despite all of these interesting threads, her character never has an arc and it's never immediately clear what her motivations are. Watson is a great actress, but she just has absolutely nothing to do here- Mae is an inconsistent character at best, and a totally non-existent one at worst.
But somehow, it only gets worse from there. It's always good to see Tom Hanks in a movie, but Eamon Bailey is one of the most poorly written villains I think I've ever seen. Bailey is clearly modeled after Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos, giants of the tech age who revolutionized our culture and had both a positive and negative impact. Bailey clearly desires a certain level of control over all of society's functions, but for a calculated mastermind who has turned this corporation into his own private evil-doing machine, he's surprisingly inept. It's never clear why he's doing any of this, and that just kills his character. And good lord, why did they have to put John Boyega, one of the most charismatic rising stars on the planet, in such a thankless, pointless role? Ty LaFitte could be an interesting character in the right story, but he's mostly stuck on the sidelines, watching and silently judging the action.
The fact that The Circle can't pull off a relatively standard narrative is frankly shocking. Judging by what's on the screen, I'm not sure that this was ever destined to be a great movie, but it at least could have been good. It has a great cast, some impressive cinematography from Matthew Libatique, and a very solid techno score by Danny Elfman, elements that would have stood out more in a better movie. And even with all the missteps, Ponsoldt is still a talented filmmaker, bringing some splashy flair that sticks out. But it's almost like he hit a brick wall with this one, realizing halfway through production that this thing wasn't going to come together and abandoning hope altogether. The ending is laughably bad, giving the audience no answers and literally avoiding the idea of a conclusion to the story. In the final moments, Bailey looks at his partner-in-crime, chuckles, and says "We're so f**ked." It almost feels like a meta commentary from the whole crew, as it slowly dawned on them that this film was destined to be a colossal misfire. The Circle had plenty of potential, but none of it comes to life on the screen. To be quite honest with you, I'm still shocked. It's that bad.
THE FINAL GRADE: D+ (4.7/10)
Images courtesy of STX Films