Warning: This review contains discussion of spoilers – not spoilers themselves – for The Circle. Which is to say, not “Darth Vader is Luke’s father”, but “Empire Strikes Back ends with a shocking revelation about Darth Vader’s origins.” Read at your own risk.
Just by existing, James Ponsoldt’s The Circle already has me in its corner. I’ve long held that there just aren’t enough stories engaging with the Internet on any meaningful level – considering how the world has changed too many times to count in the last quarter-century, it’s always sort of irked me that there’s so little fiction about that.
This is why I’m coming to The Circle primarily as a big fan of Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name. I encountered the novel in late 2013, less than a week from the first time I saw Her – one of my favorite films of the last decade – and the two stories have always been linked in my mind: Two science-fiction stories centered around the relationship between people and the artificial creations they personify.
Unlike Her’s plaintive, naive AI, The Circle’s consumer-grade creation is collective: The titular conglomerate, a tech company founded by Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt as the passionate, charismatic Fake Steve Jobs and detached, pragmatic Fake Mark Zuckerberg, respectively – oh, they have names, but those don’t matter. Their brainchild The Circle is everything from an quirky startup to a social network to a search engine. In fact – the book and movie both use this exaggerated construction as a jumping-off point, with a major subplot being the company having the all-encompassing “consolidation” as its number one priority – why yes, there’s a Borg Collective joke, and why no, the movie doesn’t deserve to make it.
Our story follows that consolidation process along the vector of Emma Watson as Mae, a new hire for the company, and by now you should notice how absurdly stacked this cast is: Watson, Hanks Oswalt, Karen Gillan, the heartbreakingly late Bill Paxton, and John Boyega as a Fake Steve Wozniak whose role in the movie is a cross-section of the movie’s successes and failures as a whole.
See, the Circle is designed, costumed and shot to resemble Boyega’s earliest public appearances, (That’s right, John Boyega started out as a stock photo model – keep scrapping and keep working, everyone) he stands out by blending in. He’s introduced namelessly, dressed in nondescript navy and black, muttering secrets to himself, sometimes shot nearly invisibly against the placid night. As befits his Fake Steve Wozniak status, he was the true creator of all the Circle’s technobabble most foul, but he spends most of his time sulking around their headquarters being generically displeased, not even pretending he doesn’t use all the benefits of his sinecure in his downtime from fighting the power.
In the book, Boyega’s character spends most of his time as a love interest, with his history with the company kept secret until late in the game, so when he reveals that history pretty early on in the movie, I was excited: As much as I love the book, I welcomed a change that seemed like the setup for a more involved, thoughtful take on the novel’s events. That was probably the intention at some point, but it’s clear this movie has been hacked to the bone, and instead we only see him for a few minutes before the end, and…oof.
Oof, everyone. This is some stuff out of a sour comedy from the early ‘90s: They change the ending. Not only that, they change the sad ending to a happy ending. They take the poignant, thoughtful, blowout of a finale that excuses quite a few of the book’s blind spots and flaws, and turn it into a moment of triumph that they present to us with absolutely zero thought as to the repercussions or logistics. I wish I was making that up – this is some shit Hollywood regularly makes fun of Hollywood for, and I can’t abide not telling you so.
In my personal catalogue, I’ve put The Circle into the same category as Jurassic World and Tomorrowland: Movies that, had they made just a few choices differently, would have been some of my favorites of all time. The book has its own pitfalls, and some changes would have suited it, but none of the changes the movie makes are in the right direction to make things more dramatic, more deep, or more satirical – and yet, there’s still that spark of something I find myself driven to.
It’s not just that when it comes to stories about modern tech, beggars can’t be choosers: The Circle does so much pitch-perfectly. Besides the casting, there’s the universally bright, simply-patterned, primary-colored visual aesthetic, the soft bleepy Danny Elfman score, even the actual online aspect of the movie, bristling with well-researched jokes and authentic-sounding chatter, through a comment section that permeates a sizable section of the story. They know damn well how to tell their story, but like so many people who use social media, they don’t have an acceptable idea of what that story is.