Worst of 2017: The Circle

The Circle

Continuing my spotlight on the worst films of 2017, I’m going to take a look at The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks.

The plot of The Circle is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called the Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all of humanity.

The Circle was directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt, whose other film credits include The Spectacular Now, The End of The Tour, and Smashed, as well as a handful of episodes on shows like Master of None, Shameless, and Parenthood.

The film is based on a 2013 book of the same name written by Dave Eggers, an acclaimed writer and publisher who is probably best known for founding McSweeney’s. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, marking one of a handful of times he has written for the screen (Away We Go, Where The Wild Things Are).

The impressive cast of The Circle includes the likes of Tom Hanks (Cast Away, The Green Mile, Philadelphia, The Burbs, Dragnet, Forrest Gump, Road To Perdition, Catch Me If You Can, The Ladykillers), Emma Watson (Noah, Beauty & The Beast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Glenne Headley (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Don Jon, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Dick Tracy, Breakfast of Champions), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood, Barry, Fast Food Nation), Bill Paxton (Frailty, Aliens, Predator 2, Twister, Nightcrawler, Big Love, Club Dread, True Lies, Apollo 13, A Simple Plan, Next of Kin, Slipstream), Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Doctor Who, Oculus), Patton Oswalt (MST3K, Odd Thomas, The King of Queens, Big Fan), and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Detroit, Attack The Block).

Two editors are credited for work on The Circle: Lisa Lassek (Serenity, The Cabin In The Woods, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Community, Firefly, The Avengers) and Franklin Peterson (Safety Not Guaranteed, It’s A Disaster, Comet, Mr. Robot).

The cinematographer for the film was Matthew Libatique, whose notable shooting credits include Iron Man, Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan, Chi-Raq, Phone Booth, The Fountain, Pi, and Everything Is Illuminated.

The music for The Circle was composed by Danny Elfman, one of the most recognizable and acclaimed film composers working today. His credits include Milk, American Hustle, Mission: Impossible, Spy Kids, Spider-Man, Red Dragon, Edward Scissorhands, Men In Black, Mars Attacks!, Darkman, Batman, Batman Returns, Beetlejuice, and Scrooged, among countless others.

The Circle marks the final film appearance of beloved character actor Bill Paxton, who died just before the film’s release. Sadly, one of his co-stars, Glenne Headley, also passed away in 2017, just after the movie hit theaters.

A handful of last minute reshoots were done in January of 2017 after test audiences cited some issues with the characters. However, the additional footage failed to remedy the grievances, and arguably worsened the issues, which contributed to the film’s poor reception.

Interestingly, the ending of the story for the film is changed from the one present in the original novel. In the book, Mae betrays Ty, and foils his plan to bring down the circle.

The Circle was made on a production budget of $18 million, on which it grossed roughly $34 million in its lifetime theatrical release. Interestingly, it wound up being released straight to Netflix in the UK, due in part to the devastating early reviews, as well as to the lower than expected grosses in its brief American theatrical release.

The Circle premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, just days prior to its theatrical release in the United States, and the negative word spread quickly. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 15% from critics and 23% from audiences, along with an IMDb user rating of 5.3/10.

In his review for The Atlantic, David Sims describes The Circle as follows:

The Circle has absolutely no grasp on its own tone. It veers from insidious social commentary to wildly absurd comedy sometimes within the same conversation, warning of a world where we may use Facebook to vote, but also have microchips implanted in our children’s bones. As a satire, The Circle might have been worth a few giggles, but as a deadly serious drama, it’s laughable in an entirely different way.

As Sims points out, The Circle suffers from a very serious tone problem. While I don’t think it ever becomes an “absurd comedy,” it does vary quite wildly in intensity. There is also certainly a lack of clarity in regards to what the film is trying to say or advocate, which makes the vision and purpose of the whole movie muddy.  If it had been executed as a straight satire, there might have been something interesting to say about corporate identity and the modern surveillance state. However, everything in The Circle is taken to an absurd extreme beyond even remote plausibility, which makes the whole experience feel paper thin. Stretching the suspension of disbelief so far actually undercuts the biting criticisms that the work was trying to make, and the production looks ridiculous for it.

There are more than a few moments where The Circle devolves into the typical “kids these days” griping that every generation loves to levy at their successors (which is surreal in how out of place it is for a movie whose characters are supposed to be analogous to Google or Apple employees). There is also, unsurprisingly, a lack of understanding of technology, and the culture that surrounds it.

At least in my experience, the people who are most up to date with the latest technological advances are also at the forefront of defending net neutrality, and opposing mass surveillance measures. There is a difference between people selectively sharing aspects of their lives on social media and being “fully transparent,” a distinction The Circle doesn’t seem to grasp. Truthfully, I don’t think anyone really wants full transparency through social media: they want to be able to cultivate and cater their image, which is the whole appeal of the platform. There may be more public sharing involved than previous generations could imagine, but it isn’t unlimited sharing – it is deliberate and selective sharing, in order to build an outward persona.

It is a shame that The Circle devolves into an infantile exercise in slippery slope catastrophizing, because there is a seed of an interesting idea underneath all of this: there are things to be said about the modern surveillance culture, as well as how people incorporate brands into their personal identity. Unfortunately, the potentially salient points are all completely buried underneath a thick layer of Luddite ideology here.

Aside from the technological aspects of the film, there are plenty of other flaws worth addressing with The Circle. While the performances are for the most part pretty good (Boyega, Hanks, and Gillan all stand out), the characters are all one-dimensional, and are defined by a single trait or flaw: they don’t even remotely feel like or behave like tangible, realistic people. On top of that, the story of the film is almost completely without structure: instead of having a cogent arc to it, the story is just a sequence of events that happen, with very little connection between them. In an art movie, this technique might work: something like a snapshot of an intriguing life. However, for a movie that is allegedly a drama or a thriller, there needs to be some connection between events to build tension. For the most part, The Circle is just a series of unconnected fictitious TED talks, with brief intermissions. The result is a movie that feels about 20 times longer than it actually is – a dreadfully boring and mind-numbing experience.

The Circle, on the whole, feels like a movie with a rushed screenplay that needed a whole lot more work. For the most part, all of the movie’s critical errors boil down to writing issues: namely the characters, the structure, and the story. For the record, everything else is pretty good: the movie looks decent, has a fair share of good performances, and has an interesting enough premise. However, it is all built on a shoddy foundation, and the movie is a wreck because of it.

As far as a recommendation goes, there isn’t much to see here. Unless you are a tech geek and want to pull your hair out, this is a movie that should never even pop up on your radar. If you are looking for a bad tech movie with a poor understanding of the internet, Hackers and The Net are always there for you.

 

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