Film Review – The Circle (2017)

But it was all right, everything was all right,
the struggle was finished. He had won the
victory over himself. He loved  Big Brother.

– George Orwell (1984)

Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Music by: Danny Elfman
Starring: Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Karen Gillan, Bill Paxton
MPAA rating: PG-13
My Rating: 7 of 10

I am not normally one who does in-depth research on modern films and looks ahead to what will be being released in theaters in the months upcoming, so it is rare that I find myself going to a movie theater to watch a newly released film (unless if it involves Star Wars or Christopher Nolan). However, back in February I stumbled upon an article discussing a film which was due to be released within the next few months. The article intrigued me as did the trailer for the film and, as a result, when I was finally able to slip money for a movie ticket into my budget, I went to see James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of David Eggers’ novel The Circle.

The film relates the tale of Mae Holland (Emma Watson, Beauty and the Beast) who lands a dream job as a customer service representative at a social media company called “The Circle” which seems to incorporate elements of Google, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms into one large conglomerate. Mae is drawn into this world by her best friend Annie Allerton (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who) who lines up an interview for her and later shows her around the campus where Circle employees work, live and engage in community activities. Later, as Mae meets other prominent members of the Circle such as the charming company CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies), the mysterious Ty (John Boyega, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and the shadowy Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt, Ratatouille), she slowly comes to realize that the Circle is not just any ordinary internet company, but a moving force with a disturbing secret. Plus everyone begins to become obsessed with her personal life, including the fact that her father Vinnie (Bill Paxton, Apollo 13) is suffering from a serious illness. As Mae gets pulled deeper and deeper into this world she begins to endure a Jekyll-and-Hyde dilemma which takes a toll on her and the ones she loves in truly terrible ways.

The film is well-shot and fairly faithful to the novel, though it omits certain aspects of the original story due to time limits and space. It does an excellent job of accurately portraying the fast-unfolding world of social media and the demands it makes upon the people who find themselves caught up inside of it. The story also flows at a good pace keeping the audience interested as it unfolds. Its message, which is contained inside of the experiences of the main characters such as Mae, is a solid one but is not elaborated on very much if at all in verbal dialogue, whereas the message of the film’s antagonists is verbally stated and philosophically discussed at multiple points throughout the film. Indeed, one is left wishing that the makers of the film had included a Humphrey Bogart-like dissertation on the heroes’ message from one of the main characters like Boyega’s character Ty. This weakens the effectiveness of the film’s warning of the dangers of abandoning personal privacy in the digital age, though the personal experiences of the main characters themselves still do a good job of getting the message across.

The film’s acting is very well done. Watson successfully portrays a naive young woman of the digital age being thrust into a world she does not fully comprehend and her gradual transformation into one torn between the world of an ideologue and the world of her family and friends. Hanks’ portrayal of the charming but manipulative, ambitious and villainous Eamon Bailey will visually remind many of the internet CEOs of the West Coast (Hanks has joked he based his performance and appearance on Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey) but his performance of charm covering his manipulative and ambitious nature will remind many film buffs of the charming villains that the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock often used in his films with actors such as Ray Milland, Claude Rains and James Mason. The charming, soothing nature of the villainous Bailey gently disarms the objections of his targets, such as Mae, and gets them to agree with him.  This makes him an even more dangerous man than he initially appears when the audience first meets him.

The film’s great weakness is one of underdevelopment. While the personal lives and characters of Mae and Bailey are well-developed for the most part, other developmental elements of the film are left sorely lacking. Boyega does well in bringing across the mysteriousness of his character as he hangs around in the background, but otherwise the audience is left wondering very much about him and what he claims to stand for. The same could be said of Oswalt’s Tom Stenton who we really do not learn terribly much about except that he is very much the “behind-the-scenes” man always lurking in the shadows and the one who acts as Bailey’s strong-armed support when it comes to implementing more of Bailey’s villainous plans. Gillan does good work portraying Mae’s friend Annie as a super-excited idealistic person who slowly descends into a suffering nightmare, but the reasons for her suffering nightmare are never fully explained to the audience except for the fact that Mae has played some part in bringing it about. Mae’s relationship with her parents and her childhood friend Mercer is portrayed as a close one and that she loves them all very much, but the audience is still left very much in the dark about them, though Paxton (in his last film) gives a heart-wrenching performance as an older man struggling with multiple sclerosis. The relationship between Mae and Ty, which runs deep in the novel, is also rather sparse and not fully developed. Indeed, as the film hurdles towards its climax, the audience is left wondering why Ty is willing to trust Mae to the extent which he does when so little attention or implication has been given about their friendship. Finally, the underdevelopment of these aspects wastes opportunities that could be used to present the message of the film in a more verbal setting which would make it clearer and easier to understand.

The film is certainly not a family film (at least for families with young children) due it’s dystopian nature, but all the same it is one which teenagers and young adults in today’s world would do well to watch and learn from. There are a few instances of bad language as well as a very brief bedroom scene (though the nature and placement of the scene in the film is obviously to help the audience understand the film’s message). In addition, there is also a very tragic scene towards the end of the film which is not for the faint of heart. However, for those who enjoy works such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or those who worry about the ways in which social media can be abused or can warp mankind, this film is definitely a must-see.

© 2017 Grant Dahl & On This Terrestrial Ball. All rights reserved. This material may not be re-published, re-broadcast, re-written or re-distributed without permission from the author of this piece.