Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Bill Paxton
Watch The Circle online in the UK: Netflix UK
Originally scheduled for a UK theatrical release, James Ponsoldt’s adaptation of Dave Eggers’ best-selling dystopian novel took just $20 million at the US box office and has subsequently been released straight to Netflix in the UK, with little fanfare. It follows in the footsteps of Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, which shared a similar fate, after faring dismally at the US box office.
Adapted for the screen by Eggers and Ponsoldt, the film stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a 20-something customer service worker who’s thrilled when her high-flying friend Annie (Gillan) lands her a job at giant tech firm The Circle (think Google, Facebook and Amazon all rolled into one). At first, everything seems perfect, particularly when Annie ensures that Mae’s MS-afflicted father (Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, alongside Glenne Headley in her last screen role, as Mae’s mother) is included in The Circle’s health plan.
However, Mae soon begins to suspect that the company – lead by co-founder-slash-guru Eamon Bailey (an effectively cast Tom Hanks) – has a far-reaching agenda that has great consequences for humanity, suspicions that are backed up by her encounters with a shadowy figure (Boyega) who appears to be a company insider and is concerned about The Circle’s direction.
The strength of Eggers’ novel lies in its chilling depiction of what one reviewer referred to as “a future we’ll be very lucky to avoid”, a future in which privacy is completely eroded and we willingly make all our personal details public through our online identities (the master-stroke of both the novel and the fictional company is to streamline everything into one identity, known as TruYou – the foundation for The Circle).
To that end, the film does deliver a handful of genuine chills, partly because it’s impossible to watch the film without realising how perilously close we are to its depiction of the future already, and partly because it deliberately frames the arguments so that you can see the benefit of letting technology take over – for example, Mae reacts with laughter to the suggestion of implanting chips in children, but her co-worker informs her that a trial scheme has reduced incidences of rape, kidnap and murder of children by 99 per cent.
Unfortunately, although the film raises some provocative ideas, it falls down in a number of different areas. Chief among these is Watson’s performance – she plays Mae as frustratingly blank-faced, to the point where we have no real idea how she feels about The Circle, or indeed anyone close to her. The adaptation strips out the complexity of the novel, resulting in a jarring personality shift for Gillan’s friend and reducing Boyega’s key player to a cypher (who mysteriously disappears), as well as removing one supporting character altogether. It removes all traces of sexuality, an odd decision that feels like one of several missed opportunities. The dialogue is often laughably bad, with Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane forced to utter some particularly excruciating clunkers (“Death threats, Mae!”) as her off-the-grid former boyfriend, Mercer. On top of that, Ponsoldt frequently struggles to find the right tone – for example, a scene where Mae’s co-workers chide her for not updating her social media accounts is played for easy laughs and swiftly dropped, rather than contributing to an escalating level of tension, anxiety and paranoia.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that nothing much actually happens in novel, with a climax that would be distinctly underwhelming on screen. Accordingly, the film’s ending differs, in part, from the book, but the result is both clumsy and confusing and fails to satisfy.
The Circle is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.