When Mae (Watson) is hired to work for the world's largest and most powerful tech and social media company, she sees it as an opportunity of a lifetime. As she rises through the ranks, she is encouraged by the company's founder, Eamon Bailey (Hanks), to engage in a groundbreaking experiment that pushes the boundaries of privacy, ethics, and ultimately, her personal freedom. Her participation in the experiment and every decision she makes begin to affect the lives and future of her friends, family, and all of humanity.
The potential merits and drawbacks of evolving social media use in our daily lives continue to be hotly debated topics -- engendering questions about what kind of role technology can and should play in the 21st Century. As such, the concept might seem like a great jumping off point for a film. That is, so long as that jumping off point actually leads to a worthwhile destination… and not the cinematic equivalent of a 50-foot drop onto concrete. Rather than develop the movie's contemporary themes into anything resembling thoughtful commentary or even the bare essentials of an engaging story, the filmmakers behind The Circle end up with a flick so empty and undercooked that it feels downright incomplete.
Based on the novel of the same name by author Dave Eggers, the movie focuses on a young woman named Mae (Emma Watson) who, after nabbing a coveted job at The Circle, one of the world's top social media companies, attempts to adjust to her new tech-absorbed lifestyle. As she begins to embrace the always-on connected culture of the business, she is given a special project that could usher in a new stage of online interaction. But when the possible dangers of The Circle's practices come more and more into focus, Mae must decide whether to stay plugged-in or help shut it all down for good.
Though nothing special, the movie's first act actually shows a fair amount of promise. The ins and outs of the social media obsessed life that permeate throughout the company feel relatively authentic, and Mae's initial trepidation to the overwhelming nature of it all seems to be setting up some solid conflict with just enough potential to evolve into a decent tech thriller. Sadly, this never happens.
In fact, between the opening titles and the end credits, not a whole lot actually happens. And what does, is very poorly defined. Mae's arc is almost non-existent. She starts off being wary about The Circle's behavior and even hears about some of the company's vaguely nefarious actions from a concerned employee named Ty (John Boyega). But instead of following through with this, she inexplicably becomes a devout follower at the drop of a hat after she almost drowns when she goes kayaking alone at night. The transition is downright laughable and makes about as little sense as… well, going kayaking alone at night. (Seriously, this is never a good idea!)
Motivations and explanations behind other characters' behavior are even more problematic… in the sense that they basically don't exist. Karen Gillan plays a close friend of Mae's who also works at The Circle and she randomly goes from being an enthusiastic worker to a strung-out, barely functioning zombie for no discernable reason. In one sequence she's smiling and in the next she's falling apart. It's almost like there's a scene or two that's been taken out by mistake. And don't get me started on Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt as the "sinister" overlords in charge of the company. They get zero character development and we get zero insight into what it is they're even planning… that is, if they're even planning anything at all. For a lot of the runtime it seems like we're building toward some great reveal involving an intricate conspiracy, but it just never happens.
The movie attempts to examine ideas related to social media, privacy, transparency, and the very nature of truth, but it doesn't end up saying anything substantial about any of these topics. There are times early on when the flick appears to be veering toward a slightly satirical edge with its exaggerated take on tech culture, and a more overtly sardonic tone may have actually helped develop some worthwhile commentary. Sadly, the film instead takes itself way too seriously, making it even harder to buy the fleeting drama it presents. The story seemingly wants to provide a prescient take on what social media and surveillance could lead to, but the scenarios here were likely already dated before the cameras even started to roll.
Director James Ponsoldt has previously been responsible for some very solid flicks (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) and author Dave Eggers has a strong fan base, which makes this overwhelming misstep all the more perplexing. Even the usually reliable Emma Watson feels oddly artificial and flat here. Really, the whole affair just comes across as forced, hollow, and simplistic. Far from the killer app that it aspires to be, the runtime instead plays out like an early alpha in desperate need of some major debugging.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Lionsgate presents The Circle in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital HD combo pack. A BD-50 Blu-ray disc comes housed in a keepcase with a cardboard slipcover. A DVD and instructions for an UltraViolet/iTunes digital copy are included as well. After some logos and skippable trailers, the region A disc transitions to a standard menu.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Though the flick itself might be a total mess, the video quality is mostly fantastic, resulting in a pleasing and nearly pristine image.
Shot on the Red Epic Dragon, the digital source offers a predominantly crisp picture marked by a light layer of grain-like noise. That said, some very minor false contouring does crop up in the skies and around a light source during a foggy kayaking scene set at night. Clarity is impressive throughout, revealing sharp fine textures while highlighting every detail in the overlayed graphics and every tiny freckle on Emma Watson's face. Dimension is also nicely rendered, giving a great sense of depth to the transfer, especially during bright outdoor scenes. Some early sequences that take place in a drab office setting feature a comparatively cool cast, but the runtime mostly sticks to a natural palette with some decent pop when called for (greens around the Circle campus are particularly lush). Contrast is high with bright whites, and while this can lead to a faintly blown-out quality in a few shots, the style works well to further evoke the movie's modern tech aesthetic. Blacks are balanced well, but one scene set in an underground server facility looks a tad flat and washed out.
Despite some marginal quarks here and there, the video transfer is quite strong overall, making one wish the filmmakers had a worthwhile story to back up their slick visuals.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, along with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Spacious and nicely layered, this is a very engaging mix.
Speech is clear and full-bodied with no balance issues. The soundstage is wide and textured throughout, spreading appropriate effects to the left, right, and surrounds when called for, adding convincing atmosphere to the Circle campus and other more lively locations, including a few kayaking scenes set on the bay. Crowd applause and reactions hit the rears during conference sequences while passing vehicles transition seamlessly from side to side or front to back. The score and song selections feature strong separation and range, and bass has nice kick in certain music cues (including a Beck concert) and more dramatic moments.
Well produced and marked by convincing ambiance and sound design, The Circle hits Blu-ray with a great audio presentation.
No More Secrets: Completing The Circle (HD, 31 min) – Presented in four parts viewable individually or together, this is a solid behind-the-scenes doc with cast & crew interviews and on-set footage. The participants discuss the original book, changes made to the story, casting, locations, and cinematography. Likewise, the actors elaborate on their characters, fleshing them out in ways that sadly never happen on-screen.
The Future Won't Wait: Design & Technology (HD, 11 min) – Here we get details on designing the film's titles and various on-screen graphics.
A True Original: Remembering Bill Paxton (HD, 14 min) – This featurette focuses on the late, great Bill Paxton as Tom Hanks shares stories about their friendship.
The Circle might be one of the worst mainstream Hollywood releases I've seen in quite a long time. The cast, concept, and behind-the-scenes talent look promising on paper, but the resulting flick is just plain bad. On the bright side, this disc does feature a strong technical presentation with great video and audio. The included supplements are also decent but, considering how terrible the movie itself is, most viewers will likely be better off skipping this one.