Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane
I started seeing the trailers for this film what feels like months ago. It was heavily marketed here in the US – I saw the trailer at the cinema many, many times. I was intrigued by the premise, the strong cast and the writer Dave Eggers. The fact that Eggers and Tom Hanks had already collaborated on last year’s disappointing ‘Hologram for the King’ didn’t manage to put me off too much. Unfortunately, ‘The Circle’ is much, much worse than Hanks’ last offering.
The premise is very similar to an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ (most especially ‘Nosedive’). The setting is a near-future world, in which ‘The Circle’ (kind of a combination of Google and Facebook) is hell-bent on taking over every aspect of our lives. It’s goal is to co-ordinate every aspect of people’s online life (banking, shopping, GPS, social media) into one account (so you don’t have to remember so many pesky passwords). Mae (Emma Watson) manages to get a job there, thanks to her friend Annie (Karen Gillan), who is one of the ‘Group of 40’ – the inner circle of the company, surrounding CEOs Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Stenton (Patton Oswalt). Mae can’t believe her luck at first – the company’s campus has everything an employee could desire – including dog yoga and pentanque. It also provides excellent healthcare, not just for herself, but also her parents. This is particularly significant because her Dad (Bill Paxton, sadly in his final role) has MS. Mae’s role in customer service is governed by her ‘score’ (her rating from the customers) and smiley or frowny faces are almost treated like a currency. She is also heavily encouraged to get involved in all of the social aspects of The Circle, which again, will give her a ‘rating’.
A strong cast has been gathered by the young director (James Ponsoldt). There is a trio of young British acting talent: Watson, Gillan and John Boyega – for some inexplicable reason, Gillan gets to keep her own accent, but Watson and Boyega play Americans. Hanks will always be a draw for me – even though all three of his films from last year (‘Hologram for the King’, ‘Inferno’ and ‘Sully’) ranged from terrible to mediocre. Eggers IS a strong writer (I am a fan of his novel ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ and McSweeney’s), but for some reason, his work is not translating well to film. The dialogue is awful, especially for poor Boyega, who is under-used and given the most cringe-worthy lines. The character development is laughable. Gillan goes from high-powered business woman to a pale, greasy-haired hollow shell seemingly over-night. She appears in the audience of one of the ‘Dream Fridays’ pep-rallies looking like something from a Japanese horror movie and I guffawed out loud. It is the protagonist, Mae, who has the most unbelievable transformation though. She is skeptical and even horrified at first, when she realises how much The Circle already knows about her when she starts. However, she very quickly (after a mostly off-screen conversation with Bailey and Stenton) agrees to start wearing a camera and to being filmed at all times. It is a ridiculous leap that comes from nowhere.
What ‘Black Mirror’ does so effectively is plunge the viewer immediately into a fully-realised world. The plots are so tightly-controlled and efficient that no line of dialogue or detail of production design is wasted. It doesn’t overwhelm you with information and try to tell you things in a preachy way, it shows you exactly what you need to know with astonishing economy. ‘The Circle’ bombards the audience with every conceivable nightmare of ‘out-of-control technology’; lack of privacy being the main one. It raises some interesting debates – is having your health constantly monitored a good thing? Wouldn’t it be good if we were all automatically registered to vote or if voting was mandatory? How can we use facial recognition to catch criminals? However, each issue that is raised is done so in such a ham-fisted and melodramatic way, with such extreme reactions (the masses naively going along with it, a few crazy loners trying to resist) that there is no room for nuance.
It is a shame that this had to be Paxton’s final role, as his performance is one of the few highlights of this film. Unfortunately, the rest of this film will prove largely forgettable. It has botched what could have been interesting concept with convoluted plotting, ridiculous character development and melodramatic dialogue. A feature-length episode of ‘Black Mirror’ does appeal to me, but it clear that Eggers is no Charlie Brooker. This film has just left me even more impressed than I was before with ‘Black Mirror’ because I have realised what Brooker does is not easy. So, do yourself a favour and stay home from the cinema and watch ‘Nosedive’ or ‘San Junipero’ instead.