Cinematic Releases: The Circle (2017) - Reviewed

Early in the film, during her interview at the titular social media juggernaut The Circle, Emma Watson’s character Mae is asked what she fears the most.  With little hesitation, she answers, “Unrealized potential.”  These two words naturally got her the coveted job at the almost too forward-thinking company.  Thing is, they also serve to ably sum up the film.  There’s an interesting story here, but it’s a bit hard to tell at times if we’re watching a cautionary tale about online transparency or a slightly watered down episode of Black Mirror.

Watson’s Mae is the kind of person you’d expect to be working for a company like The Circle: wide-eyed, idealistic, and almost ashamed of how overwhelmed she is by the big and exciting world around her.  She is quickly indoctrinated into—seduced by?—the company culture, where buzzy slogans like “Sharing is Caring” and “Secrets are Lies” are projected larger-than-life onto giant screens next to giant photos of her and her friends.  As The Circle’s executives (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt) pontificate about a fully transparent online world, Mae is faced with a crisis that could shatter her relationships with her friends and loved ones inside and outside of The Circle.

The Circle is directed by James Ponsoldt (the underrated YA flick The Spectacular Now) and co-written by Ponsoldt and McSweeney’s icon Dave Eggers, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based.  The novel is easily one of Eggers’ more accessible works, though not his best (his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a masterpiece.)  Still, when even your lesser books are still pretty great, you’re doing alright.  The Circle translates seamlessly from the page to the screen, weaving indie intimacy among the film’s big ideas and impressive sets and visuals.  This is Ponsoldt (and Eggers)’ masterstroke; you’re watching huge stars like Watson and Hanks in what looks and feels like the biggest budget indie movie ever made.

Great! Tom Hanks is in this movie. Just don't put him near any freighters or airplanes. 

The Circle is stacked with some pretty heavy hitters lending their talent to quite a few small but pivotal roles.  Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, or to some of you Doctor Who) plays Mae’s overworked friend/co-worker Annie, and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, or to some of you Attack the Block) is a mysterious man with some big secrets.  The Circle is also features the late Bill Paxton in one of his final roles, as Mae’s ailing father.  The level of talent behind The Circle is impressive indeed.

This brings us back to the whole “unrealized potential” thing.  For a film with a cast and filmmakers this great and a timely, chilling premise, The Circle is not as, well, sharp as it should be.  Much like the books it presents some pretty fascinating and chilling concepts but it never quite lives up to them.  The Message about online transparency and social media’s domination of our daily lives is right there at the forefront of The Circle, but in the end you’re left feeling like you should have learned some valuable truth instead of just watching these characters experience it.  

Great! That Emma chick is in this movie. Everybody hide all your beasts. This girl is kinda weird. 

None of this makes The Circle a bad film in any way, but perhaps a bit toothless given its heady subject matter.  Still, there’s enough commentary here—maybe just barely enough—to make you think a bit on what you share with your friends on your Facebook or Instagram account.  It’s hard to imagine a world where something like The Circle can exist, and yet, we’re not too far away from it now.  The Circle gives us a relatable character with a clearly defined arc in Mae, but it never quite dives as deep into its central concepts as it could or should have.  Instead of sobering social commentary we get a pretty good movie, one that can entertain and even surprise us, but can’t shake that feeling of unrealized potential.


-Mike Stec