I read Dave Eggers' 2013 novel The Circle with some trepidation, fully expecting it to devolve into a creaky, finger-wagging cautionary tale about how scary and dangerous the internet can be (as if we didn't already know). And it is that, to an extent, but it's also surprisingly plausible in its depiction of one woman's methodical indoctrination into an organization that only gradually reveals its nefarious inner workings.
Now here's the big-screen adaptation of Eggers' book, and although it follows his text relatively faithfully (up to a point), it somehow manages to completely misinterpret the entire reason this story exists in the first place. That Eggers is credited as a co-screenwriter is a shock: Was he complicit in transforming his own allegory about the potential dangers of online omniscience into something resembling an endorsement thereof, or was artistic control wrested away from him? I'd bet on the latter.
Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, who lands a coveted position in the customer relations department at the Circle, a Bay Area tech conglomeration that could actually exist if Apple, Facebook and Google combined forces to become an all-seeing, three-headed monster. As an employee, Mae is encouraged to be remarkably candid with both her co-workers and her customers, to share everything she thinks and feels online and to document her goings-on when she isn't at work.
Although she's initially skeptical about the company's dogged interest in her every move, Mae quickly discovers that the Circle is a benevolent overseer: It provides her with free lodging and countless amenities on the expansive campus — you'll never need to leave! — and even allows her ailing father (the late Bill Paxton) to join her health insurance plan. She's soon recognized as a rising star within the company, catching the eye of its founders (Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt), attending high-level meetings and walking around wearing a button-sized camera that's always broadcasting a live video feed.
Enter a shadowy figure known as Ty (John Boyega), who befriends Mae and claims to possess the skeleton key that unlocks all of the Circle's dark and dirty secrets. Sounds like the stuff of a tightly wound, paranoid thriller, but it's presented in an unbelievably sluggish manner.
The Circle was reportedly subject to extensive, last-minute reshoots, and you needn't have read the source material to notice the seams. The movie is so awkwardly paced that you get the feeling entire scenes and subplots were cavalierly axed from the final cut. Important characters inexplicably vanish before their relevance to the plot can be fully explained; others experience drastic shifts in demeanor and motivation, seemingly at random. Whole conversations are photographed either in extreme long shot or so that whoever's talking is conveniently off-screen, designed to disguise extensive post-production dialogue re-recording.
What's most disappointing about this haphazard mess is that it was directed and co-written by the typically reliable James Ponsoldt, whose earlier films include the excellent literary adaptations The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour. Because of the obvious studio tinkering, maybe he's not the one to blame for the movie's incongruous, bizarro ending, which represents both a complete failure of nerve and a 180-degree repudiation of Eggers' narrative intentions.
Either have the conviction to tell the story you want to tell, or don't bother with it at all. ♦