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Courtesy of STX Entertainment

May 13, 2017

The Circle: As if The Onion Made a Tech Thriller

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Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and John Boyega in the same movie? A movie that’s a tech thriller about the dangers of social media? Man, I was hyped for this film! I mean, it had to at least be fun, right? Unfortunately, I haven’t been this disappointed in a movie since Batman v. Superman. Directed by James Ponsoldt and based on the book by Dave Eggers, The Circle comes across as a soapbox movie that can’t even get its message straight.

The Circle stars Emma Watson as Mae, a young woman who lands an interview with a company called the Circle, which is essentially a combination of Apple, Google and Facebook. She quickly rises through the ranks and catches the eye of the company’s founder, Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). As she delves further and further into the Circle’s experiments though, she doesn’t necessarily like what she finds.

I do realize my plot synopsis is short and barebones, and that’s because the plot itself is the same. Starting with the characters, Mae is not at all well-defined. We know very few details about her life; all we know is that she lives with her parents, has a father with multiple sclerosis and has a friend named Mercer. We don’t know what she values in life, we don’t know what she enjoys, we don’t know what she fears beyond a cryptic answer in an interview: “unrecognized potential.” Heck, for the first thirty minutes I didn’t even know her name! Once I realized I didn’t know the character’s name, I had to actively keep an ear out for it. Emma Watson’s acting doesn’t help at all. At times, it’s impossible to tell whether she’s angry at what she hears, or accepting, or skeptical, or joyous. She can pull off the more obvious emotions, but when she needs to display subtlety it doesn’t work out well.

The other characters aren’t any better. Mae’s friend Mercer, played by Ellar Coltrane, has one personality trait: he doesn’t like social media. In fact, he becomes unlikable because every time he opens his mouth it’s to complain that Mae wants to text him later to schedule a meet-up instead of talking about it immediately, or that she posted a picture of his handiwork online. Mae has another friend named Annie, played by Karen Gillan. Annie works as a lawyer helping companies circumvent regulations… I think. Where did she meet Mae? Why are they friends? What is their relationship with each other? The Circle doesn’t care enough to tell us! John Boyega also makes an appearance as Ty Lafitte, the founder of the Circle’s subsidiary TrueYou, who stepped down from his role because he didn’t like what the Circle was doing. He says some stuff about invasion of privacy. The most life-like character in the movie is Eamon Bailey, thanks to Tom Hanks’ natural charm, but even Hanks struggles to pull off what I think is supposed to be a villainous Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg blend.

You’re probably noticing me saying “I think” a lot as I talk about this movie. That’s because so much of this film gets shrouded in uncertainty, and likely not on purpose. The plot itself is half-baked. There’s a senator who wants to break up the Circle because of anti-trust laws. She suddenly gets investigated by the FBI, and we never hear about it again. Mae is given a health tracker band, which is never to be brought up again. Ty says that the Circle is planning something with people’s data. We never find out what that is. There are lots of starts for interesting conflicts, but few of them go anywhere. The result is a plot that never comes full circle.

Most infuriating of all, we don’t even get a proper introduction to the Circle. We instead have to piece it together bit by bit based on what they’re able to do. For all we know most of the time, the Circle could be some idealistic start-up that is spouting off crazy theories while the rest of the world sits unperturbed. On top of what the company is, it’s also unclear what the Circle is supposed to be as a story device. Is it a devilish cult? It would seem so, given the unusual pair of employees who confront Mae over her lack of social media presence. Is it just a tool that can be used for good or evil? It would seem so, since Mae says that verbatim in the film.

Speaking of characters saying things — the dialogue is terrible. It doesn’t understand how people speak and react. One exchange goes like this:

“Why are you in Scotland?”

“Turns out I’m allergic to wheat.”

Nonsensical! The bad dialogue is especially obvious at the presentations where Bailey delivers product launches and discusses other initiatives. Every sentence is punctuated with applause or laughter, dragging out the dialogue and getting annoying.

All of this mess gets tied up with a message about social media. And what is that message?… I wouldn’t know what to tell you! I think it’s trying to be critical of social media use, but really shoots itself in the foot in that regard. Ty rambles on about invasion of privacy, but over the course of the movie we see the Circle get used to save Emma Watson’s life when she falls in San Francisco bay, catch a fugitive murderer in under ten minutes, hold Congress more accountable to their actions, virtually eliminate child kidnapping and promote democratic elections around the globe. Now, there are certain points where I raised my eyebrows, like implanting chips inside children’s bones and having the Circle be mandated as a way to vote. However, we don’t really see the concrete effects of why that’s bad. It’s hard to tell if they are going for moral greyness, because there are some points where the Circle gets portrayed as laughably evil. Even then though, it’s not a very strong evil. Only one person ends up dying in this movie: Mercer, and that’s because he was an idiot speeding along mountain roads. No one else gets injured, or even threatened. Zero stakes are raised.

And here we get to the root of the problem. The plot is missing one crucial element that makes the entire story collapse: it does not have a “why.” Why should we care about Mae? Why should we care about the Circle? Why is Ty so worried about Eamon Bailey’s plan? Why should we be worried about Bailey’s plan? Why has Ty not acted against the plan if he has such a crucial role within the company? Why does Annie suddenly get angry with Mae halfway through the movie? Why does Mercer have such a disdain towards social media? I don’t believe these are nitpicks. I believe these are questions that we as an audience deserve to know the answers to. The Circle’s tagline says that “secrets are lies” and “sharing is caring”. If the movie did a lot more caring and a lot less lying, maybe it would be a better film.

To highlight the issue, I ask you to take a look at this clip from The Hunger Games for comparison:

After a failed uprising, each of the twelve districts must offer to the Capital a boy and a girl to fight to the death. This fight is known as the Hunger Games. We see a pair of talk show hosts discussing the games, saying that it started as a punishment but now serves a positive unifying force. It then cuts to a run-down hovel, where a girl awakes crying from a nightmare where she’d been chosen as a tribute. Her older sister comforts her, saying there’s little chance she’ll be chosen. The older sister sings her back to sleep, then heads out of the house. The family cat hisses at her. She trades back a barbed “I’m still gonna cook you.”

I’m not saying The Hunger Games is a perfect movie, but it manages to deliver an emotional story here. It’s obviously horrific that children are forced to fight to the death. Those are the stakes. Those stakes are raised when we see how calmly the TV hosts discuss the games. Then we meet two characters who fear the games, and get a little personality on the older sister when she comforts her sister and playfully threatens to cook the cat. Boom. Right away, we get a hook, we sympathize with the characters, we want to know what’s going happen to them. Now, let’s look at how The Circle started.

Emma Watson paddling in a kayak.

Emma Watson working for a water bill company.

Emma Watson driving on a dirt road.

Emma Watson having engine trouble on a dirt road.

Know what this all screams? BORING! No character, no sense of conflict, nothing that adds up into a story. When all is said and done, The Circle has little to offer. The narrative goes nowhere and the characters are empty. It’s clear that the script is message-driven instead of character-driven, but it can’t even get the message focused enough. The only upsides I can think of are a good score by Danny Elfman, and one funny line from Tom Hanks. Otherwise, this film is a hard pass, even on Redbox or Netflix. Your time would be better spent watching virtually anything else… or even, ironically enough, browsing Facebook or YouTube on your iPhone.

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at dgouldthorpe@cornellsun.com.

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