Movie Review: “The Circle” – Circling the Drain

Written by Jeremiah Greville May 04, 2017

The Circle

Have you ever met anyone who loves to talk, but doesn’t have much to say? Well, say hello to The Circle— it thinks it has something to say, but it doesn’t. It’s a self-important film that loves to hear itself speak; the movie-version of someone starting a sentence without knowing the end of it. The Circle talks first and thinks later. Or sometimes not at all. It respects the audience just as much as it insults it, spoon-feeding obvious messages then undermining them in the next scene. The Circle could have been good — even great, but aimless writing and lacklustre characterization make it another high-concept snooze-fest to avoid.

The Circle stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, the newest employee of the world’s foremost social media company, the Circle. Tom Hanks co-stars as Eamon Bailey, the mysterious head of the Circle — but really, it’s a supporting role. Emma is the star of this film, and the rest of the cast is firmly secondary. As Mae becomes accustomed to her new place in the Circle, she’s forced to confront uncomfortable truths about social media power and secrecy. While the supporting cast is fine, I’d be remiss not to mention the late Bill Paxton. His performance as Mae’s father Vinnie is both standout and understated, just as he was known for. Mr. Paxton, you will be missed.

“I think we can be better.”

Emma Watson has proven herself over several post-Potter films to be a capable actress. Her most recent film, Beauty and the Beast, opened at number one and stayed there for two weeks. However, she’s noticeably uneven as Mae. Part of this is the role itself, which requires Watson to be both naive and questioning. She seems to have only two ‘faces’ in this film: there’s ‘Acting Emma’, always putting on a strange expression of some sort, and ‘Actual Emma’ (still, of course, acting), who is warm, believable, and totally at ease. Suffice to say, there’s a world of difference between the two, and it affects the narrative greatly. ‘Acting Emma’ is an emotional enigma, and it’s often difficult to figure out what she’s thinking. This becomes a legitimate problem near the end of the film.

The Circle (2017)

While the main narrative is fairly straightforward, The Circle is filled with sub-plots that go nowhere. Ty (John Boyega) introduces Mae to a larger threat early on, only for the threat to be forgotten by the story’s end. It’s implied that the Circle is buying politicians, but the sub-plot introducing Congresswoman Santos (played by Scrubs’ Judy Reyes) is never mentioned after it’s introduced. And while it’s not as much of a problem as the first two, the subplot involving Vinnie Holland’s MS treatment is given quick lip service, but no resolution. No, the movie didn’t need to cure MS for the narrative to work, but it’s unclear if Mae’s family is still on the Circle insurance plan by the end of the film. This is important, because getting her father on the company insurance was a key moment in Mae’s indoctrination.

“Secrets are lies.”

Some of the more interesting aesthetic choices in The Circle revolve around Mae’s interactions with social media. The first act ends with Mae’s decision to ‘go clear’ — to have her life recorded by cameras 24/7. The movie illustrates the chaos of the world watching her with an animated swirling live-comment section that follows her from scene to scene. It’s not always there, but when it is, the movie has fun with the premise. Some of the comments are benign observations, while others are vulgar, and a few are even insightful. It’s an effective tool that helps the movie stand out, but never fully replicates the online experience. Let’s be clear: Mae is a young woman online, and The Circle never spends time with the real-life horrors some internet comment sections can be for those in her position.

The Circle (2017)

In this regard, The Circle boasts a lot of interesting ideas, but never really treats them realistically. In one scene eerily reminiscent of The Running Man, Mae instructs her worldwide audience to find people around the world using a new tool, ‘SoulSearch’. The implications of the tool are never really questioned throughout the scene, or even after it all predictably goes awry. Mae is less concerned with the morality of technology than she is about who uses it — or who is forced to use it. The Circle, however, is all about those moral implications, leaving the audience in the uncomfortable position of rooting for a protagonist whose beliefs are undefined. Since Mae’s concern is never made clear, the end of the movie is muddled, and sloppy. Unfortunately, to go into this further, I’ll need to talk about the ending. Skip the next two paragraphs if you’re concerned about spoilers.


In the novel by Dave Eggers, Mae agrees wholeheartedly with the Circle and all of its programs. She betrays Ty and sides with her bosses to advance the Circle’s interests going forward. The book even concludes with Mae fantasizing about ending private thought entirely. She’s someone who drank the kool-aid, and is offering you a glass. In the movie, Mae sides with Ty against her bosses, but then doubles down on the idea that the Circle is ultimately good. This simply doesn’t make sense. The movie ends in the same general place as the book, but sets up very different themes. She’s questioning throughout, but suddenly accepts the Circle completely. Her decision—and ultimate change—in the movie is never shown.

The Circle (2017)

The disconnect, however silly sounding, is that the filmmakers haven’t decided if they want Mae to be good or bad (or misguided or idealistic or anything at all). This is not a case of just ‘leaving it up to the audience’. There are significant holes in Mae’s characterization that make the ending ring hollow, when it could’ve rocked our worlds. In the last twenty minutes she seems to be motivated by revenge, and wants to put an end to Eamon’s hypocrisy. But The Circle isn’t about revenge or hypocrisy, so this ending just feels out of place. As it stands, the ending is the only reason to watch The Circle at all, and it’s the biggest reason why The Circle doesn’t work. Yes, it’s a dystopian fantasy. No, it doesn’t make sense.

“Did he tell me his name? I forgot.”

If the filmmakers just told us what Mae wanted, or hinted at her thoughts, the ending might have made more sense. Instead we have a poorly-defined protagonist whose lack of clear motivation undermines the entire movie. Despite some performance issues, this isn’t Watson’s fault. Eggars, and director/co-writer James Ponsoldt, deserve the bulk of blame. Eggars already defined Mae in his novel, yet couldn’t do so adequately on screen. The Circle could have great, but instead is just another lifeless techno-thriller with nothing much to say.

My Rating: 4/10

The Circle Poster (2017)

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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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