‘The Circle’ Is A Failed Cautionary Tale That Is Itself A Cautionary Tale

If you haven’t heard of The Circle, a movie starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and John Boyega opening in 3,000 theaters this weekend, that may be partly by design, and certainly for the best. It’d be pointless to waste my hottest hate zingers on it, since the people involved in its creation seem to have cut bait a while ago, maybe even before it was finished shooting. The film, set entirely in the Bay Area and written by Dave Eggers, one of our most acclaimed residents, didn’t even screen for critics here. And whenever a film’s PR reps start ducking the media like they’re a collection agency, it’s generally a safe bet that the studio isn’t super proud of the final product.

There are scenes in The Circle where it looks like the editor never bothered trying to make an actor’s facial movements match the words that were supposedly coming out of his mouth. It was clearly a rush job, one of those movies that the people making it seem to have realized wasn’t working but had to finish anyway. Sometimes that happens with art. You take a swing and whiff completely. No shame in trying. They deserve our compassion, though not our time. You’ve got a finite number of hours on this Earth and trust me when I say that donating 1.5 of them to The Circle is pointless charity.

Adapted from Dave Eggers’ novel by Eggers and director James Ponsoldt (End of the Tour, The Spectacular Now) The Circle follows Mae (Emma Watson) as she leaves her dead-end call center life for a job at a Facebook/Google-esque tech company. Despite the higher salary and all the perks, like a private Beck concert and doga — that’s yoga with dogs — she discovers that *gasp* sharing your entire life online might be bad.

The Circle must be set in some parallel universe where a 20-something girl wouldn’t find corporate slogans like “sharing is caring” and “privacy is theft” nefarious, but if it is it doesn’t give us many clues. Even worse, it takes Mae the entire movie to come to this painfully obvious conclusion. Instead, at one point she becomes the showpiece of her new CEO — played by Tom Hanks — spurred by a mind-numbingly convoluted kayak revelation. She’s so worked up about her culty new job, it seems, that she borrows a kayak, and tearfully paddles it out into a foggy bay night, directly into the path of a giant container ship. Did she not see or hear this giant ship that the entire audience hears? Did she do it on purpose, as some sort of false flag kayak stunt? Unclear. But the rub is that she ends up getting rescued, saved by one of The Circle’s ubiquitous new webcams.

This leads her to both a revelation and a new venture, announced during one of The Circle’s TED Talk-esque pep rallies emceed by Hanks — “Radical transparency!”

That means Mae that will be wearing one of The Circle’s futuristic cameras on her body and broadcasting her entire life. Because, as she says, “secrets are lies.” Now, if “secrets are lies” doesn’t make you groan bigly perhaps The Circle is the movie for you. But even aside from that, wasn’t Guy Broadcasting Everything He Did From A Webcam a character in one of the Scream movies? Moreover, if your idea of a futuristic cautionary tech thriller centers around webcams maybe it’s time to update the operating system.

I have plenty of friends who work at places like Facebook and Google and Salesforce, whose corporate environments are culty and terrifying enough that it takes a truly heavy hand to make a satire of them seem unfair. But The Circle somehow manages to be both shrill and anachronistic, a cautionary tale about pogs. The idea seems to be that Mae would join this company and her coworkers would gradually get so intrusive and Stepford cheerful that it’d freak her out. Instead they go from zero to 100 in basically the first scene, chiding her about her “partiscore,” an unofficial rating of how much she interacts with other employees, in a painful echo of the “flair” scene from Office Space. It takes Mae another hour of screen time to realize that this might be bad.

Mae’s story arc makes no sense and it probably doesn’t help that Emma Watson’s face was meant to convey all this, when her emotions range roughly from sad pout to confused furrow, both an admittedly much cuter variation on the classic Tucker Carlson mouth gape. Her scenes with Boyhood‘s Ellar Coltrane (playing Mae’s tragic childhood friend, Mercer) are the previously mentioned ones in which the reaction shots are out of sync with the dialogue, which could either be the result of apathy or some poor editor’s attempt to salvage the awful dialogue and acting, which looks basically like Watson and Coltrane were having a least expressive face contest. “I got death threats. Death threats, Mae!”

They’d both give Wiley Wiggins in Dazed And Confused a run for his nose bridge grab.

Mercer, by the way, is Mae’s childhood friend, whose life Mae ruins by posting a picture of his hand made antler chandelier, which leads to him getting hounded into an off-the-grid life in the backwoods by overzealous social media warriors calling him “deer killer.”

It’s amazing that such a torn-from-the-headlines plot point of social media shaming gone wrong could be dealt with so unbelievably, and yet it’s perfectly emblematic of The Circle‘s utter hamfistedness — that the only alternative presented to Mae’s lifestyle of 24/7 connected cult fascism is living off the grid making deer antler chandeliers. And isn’t that just like the real America? Making chandeliers out of dead animals to decorate their neo-colonial mansions made of tin cans, while the coastal elites are off practicing dog yoga and video bloggin’ to Beck songs!? Woof. If The Circle succeeded in one thing, it was making me want to go live in the woods.