Most films are made with the best of intentions. To entertain, to ponder, or to challenge preconceived notions. But there are films that, despite the purity of their mission statement, fall prey to the same trap affecting most college freshmen who just started taking a philosophy course: they run into the danger of having their head being shoved up their own ass. Two sentences in and already starting the colorful language, that can never be a good omen. But worry not readers, this film isn’t an absolute train wreck, it’s just an insufferable punk who won’t stop flirting with you at a bar by talking about how “real” they are.
We primarily follow Mae (Emma Watson), a small-town girl (living in a lonely world) who recently got a job in customer service for mega-tech company, The Circle, a social networking company a-la-Facebook with Google’s ultra campus and a cult-like mentality similar to Apple all in service of a faux-Steve Jobs, played here by Tom Hanks. The movie starts out with Hanks’ CEO character introducing the company’s latest invention, SeeChange, a series of tiny, satellite-connected cameras that take privacy invasions to new levels that couldn’t even be concocted by George Orwell. These cameras have everything from microphones to speakers to facial recognition scanners to barometers to everything you also need to watch and control the masses. While suspicious at first, Mae eventually learns to adopt The Circle’s love of transparency and creepy mottos to the point she literally straps a camera to herself to be watched at by the entire world at all times. Of course, this leads her to discovering “dark” secrets about the company through a programmer named Ty (John Boyega) that put a wedge between Mae and her ex-boyfriend (Boyhood‘s Ellar Coltrane), her best friend (Karen Gillian), and her parents (Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly).
The thing about the premise is, that on paper, the movie sounds like an easy sell because it’s a timely topic. Thanks to the prevalence of smart phones and Faceboook Live, people are literally video tapping every aspect of their lives as well as that of others. Similarly to the dystopian novel, 1984, our lives are being monitored almost at all times; only George Orwell didn’t count on corporations primarily being the keepers of this vast web of invasion of privacy. Hell, the corporation in The Circle uses similar catchphrases to Big Brother like “Knowing is good, knowing everything is better” and talk of “You’re safer when you’re constantly being watched.” I perhaps would not have minded if the film took itself a smidgen less seriously, because it’s po-faced approach to this data collection ironically comes across as a bigger joke than anything you would find on HBO’s Silicon Valley.
See, there’s a cringe-inducing scene where two employees harass Emma Watson’s character about her weekend activities which were either solitary or with her family. The coworkers go back and forth to assure her that she doesn’t NEED to be on The Circle’s campus, it’s just more FUN to be there with all the parties, concerts, and various groups that are organized. It’s here (towards the beginning) that the film’s problems began to reveal themselves to me: this shit is goddamn hysterical, but the music and composition of frame imply something else entirely. See, the film uses a low angle when the coworkers are talking (implies dominance) and a high angle when Watson is talking (implies submission or weakness), while the music played isn’t cheery but more business-like in tone. It creates this dissonance effect where what you’re hearing isn’t matching what you’re seeing on screen. It’s as if the film WANTS you to take this this exchange seriously, even when the screenwriter was intending this to be a far more tongue-in-cheek prod at inter-office relations.
The dissonance continues especially after you’re introduced to the concept of SeeChange, which is so obviously implying nefarious purposes that I’m surprised the film didn’t stop dead to reveal Tom Hanks had horns sprouting from his scalp. And yet, our main protagonist doesn’t explain any discomfort with this idea until halfway through the movie when she converses with John Boyega, who in turn reveals secret servers housing data upon data for millions of people and voicing outloud “This is evil.” And you feel like responding “No shit, Sherlock,” but our main protagonist literally shrugs it off and instead makes herself a spokeswoman for the company by putting every mundane interaction she has out into the world. You might think I’m paraphrasing here, but I’m simply withholding a scene that lasts maybe five minutes that is supposed to transition our protagonist from suspicious of the Circle to becoming their number one cheerleader.
Consequently, this film stops nearly dead in its tracks to give you a 15 minute sequence of following Emma Watson about her daily life and…yes it’s every bit as boring as it sounds. You quickly conclude she’s got nothing interesting in her life after three or so minutes in this sequence. The only thing that was keeping me entertained at this time where the Sherlock-esque text message bubbles appearing around Watson that conveyed all the Internet comments that people would normally make for these kind of situations (i.e. hyperbolic, unhelpful, and generally useless). But this chain of scenes also reminded me that the film spends a signficant amount of time with Watson, who’s not bad in this (actually she shows more interest here than she did in Beauty & the Beast), but her character is as interesting a soggy sock.
At least she has significantly more screen time than the likes of Tom Hanks, John Boyega and even Patton Oswalt who are all basically here for extended cameos. These three characters are name dropped constantly throughout the film, but their hardly in it and only serve to be a part of major plot developments in the movie. Bill Paxton, on the other hand, was used more extensively and he gave the role all it was worth as a man suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. It’s so sad that this was his last film before his unfortunate passing, because I loved watching this man work and he was truly one of the few bright spots I had in this mediocre venture.
Who fared even worse than I had anticipated was Ellar Coltrane as Emma Watson’s ex-boyfriend. Holy crap, this kid did not grow up into a good actor. Maybe it was just a bad role, but he’s ridiculously flat in every scene particularly when he has to show anger and frustration. If you’re wondering why I’m spending so much time ragging on this guy, keep in mind he was the “boy” from Boyhood that you saw grow up over the course of several years. Maybe he had plenty of time to rehearse his lines in that movie for each scene he was in, because he shows some amateur-hour work for The Circle.
But even if he had grown into a thespian on par with Christopher Lee, that still wouldn’t change this highly uneven film. The tone and filmming techniques are all out of the drama playbook, but the script is just rife for parodying the tech world. And by “parody” I mean a very unfocused one that takes potshots at everything from internet crusades to mob rule to corporate loyalty to mass surveillance to overworked employees to dealing with the cost of healthcare. There’s way too many plates this film wants to spin, and it ends up crashing all of them when the monitoring your life 24/7 angle would have made way more sense.
As I opened this review with, there’s a merit to discussing the issue of putting as much of your online persona as possible that several people deal with. But this was a clumsy film that was basically trying to warn “oh but these corporations aren’t your friends, they basically own everything you put out there!” And the response should be, “No shit, they ALREADY do this, so what should we do about it?” But this movie (without wishing to spoil) doesn’t even offer an answer or a condemnation. It instead gives you a half-assed ending that doesn’t want to commit to anything. It drones on and on for two hours about how privacy is dying, and just ends with a shrug and a smile. Might as well have ended with “And that’s your lot, now off you go.”
I grew frustrated with this film because there are several decent actors here genuinely trying (well save for one), but this was uninteresting mess of a movie that had nothing interesting to say that hasn’t been said better in films. I was thinking about giving this a slightly higher rating for the acting alone, but it’s not enough to say this preachy and boring mess. This is…
SOME OL’ BULLSHIT