THE CIRCLE. Utopia for Fools, or a Science Fiction Thriller with Emma Watson

It would seem like a recipe for success: a relevant topic, acclaimed director James Ponsoldt, and an impressive cast with Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and John Boyega in the lead.

Mikołaj Lewalski

29 December 2023

“The future is happening now” – this phrase is often encountered in discussions about the rapidly advancing development of technology and media. What are the advantages and disadvantages of progress? Where does the promise of positive change lie, and where is the danger? Should human dependence on networks and computers be a cause for concern? Has privacy become a scarce commodity? The discourse on these issues is much older than smartphones or Facebook. In recent years, it has also moved into major entertainment productions, whether in a relatively clever form like in Jason Bourne or evoking a smile of pity, as in Terminator: Genisys (turning Skynet into an all-powerful app on a smartphone? Brilliant!). Undoubtedly, it is an ambiguous and worthy topic for exploration. It provides material for a factual and balanced discussion but also serves as fodder for “inspired” artists trying to shock with graphics depicting a person with the Facebook logo instead of a head, plugging a cable from a computer into their vein. Unfortunately, The Circle takes the latter path.

It would seem like a recipe for success: a relevant topic, acclaimed director James Ponsoldt (known for The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour), and an impressive cast with Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and John Boyega in the lead. Considering the success of the thought-provoking Mr. Robot, one might think that we are getting a cinematic version of the series. One that focuses on different issues but provokes similar reflections. However, when one takes the trouble to learn a bit about the book that served as source material, they come across opinions like: “The Circle demonizes internet companies without offering any real arguments.” This should raise concerns for anyone expecting a well-balanced cinematic narrative. Valid concerns, it must be added. The story revolves around a girl named Mae, who starts working at The Circle—a company resembling a combination of Google and Facebook. Mae, a modest girl who spends her youth camping and kayaking, takes the job to financially support her father with multiple sclerosis (the only poignant role in the film, unfortunately also the last for the late Bill Paxton). Naturally, her service at the internet behemoth transforms her beyond recognition, as she learns during a mandatory confrontation scene with an old friend who may not have an iPhone 7 Plus but knows the essence of real life. Sorry, but Ponsoldt’s film is even more simplistic and conceptually flawed than another unsuccessful film on a similar theme—The Circle lacks the sophistication of Mr. Robot.

However, it could have been an interesting film! Despite the tension-filled technothriller ambiance, there is no significant conflict here. Nothing happens that engages us in the story, and for 95% of the time, there is no clearly defined antagonist! This nearly two-hour production is essentially a series of presentations of new ideas and elements of The Circle’s social platform, interspersed with poorly written misadventures of Mae. While a similar concept worked for Steve Jobs, here it only induces viewer fatigue. Why? Because Ponsoldt’s film script shouldn’t even be in the same building as Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece, and Emma Watson is light-years away from Michael Fassbender.

Watson unfortunately fails on all fronts—her mannerisms and behavior are glaringly artificial and lack conviction, and her emotional reactions are excessively exaggerated.

One of the first scenes—the job interview—makes you forget that this was supposed to be a well-played role. Of course, Watson is not helped by poorly written lines and absurd dialogues with caricatured characters. While Mae’s friend Annie is somewhat developed and undergoes a transformation, every other character can be summarized in one short sentence. Mae’s childhood friend Mercer is in the film solely to confront the protagonist about selling her soul to the internet devil and artificially increase the emotional weight of the story (which, until this point, doesn’t exist). The genius nicknamed Ty, played by Boyega, appears only a few times, and presumably, convinced by Mae’s doe-eyed look, he decides to entrust her with his biggest secret. It’s somewhat clever but, on the other hand, in this non-world, you don’t need to be clever when, in the era of total control of information flow, the missing Ty roams around the territory of The Circle whenever he pleases.

There are more moments that insult the viewer’s intelligence. Mae’s conversation with a couple of idiots responsible for the social profiles of employees seems like something from a comedy. I understand that it was supposed to be a jab at people who share every event of their lives online, but watching these grinning idiots, I felt no revelation, only distaste and embarrassment. Subtlety in The Circle does not exist. It is an incredibly shallow film that gains the appearance of depth due to its theme. I admit—a few aspects of the total surveillance concept motivated me to reflect. The problem is that although the film tries to address these aspects, it does so in a very vague and unclear way. It tells us that something is wrong and needs improvement, but we don’t know what these enhancements entail. What will make the system work? And it doesn’t seem like the creators want to force us to ponder these questions—I think they themselves don’t know how to answer them.

Perhaps that’s why this not-so-short film ends so abruptly and incomprehensibly. I have no idea how Mae went from point A to point B. I understand that certain events prompted her to change her worldview, but the action she takes doesn’t seem justified based on what we’ve seen. The climax of the story is not preceded by the proper build-up of conflict, and this conflict is practically non-existent. While a more skillfully written third act wouldn’t have saved the film, the ending we got was certainly the nail in the coffin. This is a poorly written and poorly acted story full of heavy-handed scenes and statements that trivialize the discussed issues. The direction is lacking (it’s hard to believe that some shots and scenes were deemed acceptable), the editing is lacking—the only redeeming aspect is the music, clearly inspired by Mr. Robot. The film has flashes, sometimes striking the right emotional chords, and at times, you feel the potential that has been wasted (ironically, in the context of Mae’s statements). Maybe this whole surveillance and control thing isn’t such a bad idea? I’m sure that in the reality of the described film, such a production would be halted even before its script reached the director.