MOVIE REVIEW: ‘The Circle’ is a disastrous misfire of epic proportions

While it started with an interesting idea and a good production team, James Ponsoldt's tech-drama soon divulges into a horrendously ham-fisted mess

| May 2, 2017

I really love James Ponsoldt. If you are unaware of him by his name, he’s the filmmaker behind such indie hits like “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now” and “The End of the Tour,” all three are fabulously moving indies that inspire as much faith in the prospect of indie film as it does raw emotion. Naturally, like every other indie director who makes it big on smaller films, there comes a time where a filmmaker must make his transition to the world of bigger blockbusters. While “The Circle” isn’t a blockbuster on the same level as something like “Kong: Skull Island” or “Jurassic World” was when it comes to indie filmmakers leveling up, but “The Circle” does represent a great jump for the filmmaker to a new level of mainstream notoriety he’s never seen before. While many times this has proven to be successful for many filmmakers, many seem ver in over their head with such big-scale films, ex. Colin Trevorrow in “Jurassic World.” Though, I had faith in “The Circle,” as it represented more of a gradual step for the filmmaker, much like Damien Chazelle’s step to “La La Land.”

If “The Circle” initially inspired faith in me, call me an atheist now.

Mae (Emma Watson) is a young woman down on her luck, working for a dead-end job as a bill collector in the Bay Area. Thanks to the help of a well-connected friend, Annie (Karen Gillan), Mae scores a job interview at The Circle, a fictional Google/Facebook/BuzzFeed/Apple type mega-company in Silicon Valley, which is at the head of the pack when it comes to technological innovation, headed by the charismatic Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), assisted by COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt). While The Circle feels like paradise at first, with the company even funding Mae’s father’s (Bill Paxton) medical bills. Mae becomes a company darling and guinea pig for The Circle’s innovation into full transparency in the world, which soon distances her from her friends, including childhood friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane). Through this, Mae meets Ty (John Boyega), the founder of The Circle, now living anonymously. He exposes Mae to the problematic truths behind The Circle and asks Mae for her help before it’s too late to reverse it.

I promise you, I was really excited to see “The Circle,” as the trailer and its prospects through its production team and cast had me hooked, but from the start, something felt off about “The Circle” and this offness soon turned into straightforward bad filmmaking at the drop of a hat (actually, it was during a scene with two of Mae’s supervisors talking to her about her social media presence where I knew that “The Circle” was going to blow). During the first 20 minutes of the film, I wasn’t as engaged as I thought I would be, but I held out, expecting the film to pick up in full-force as Mae gets more into the secrets of “The Circle,” but that moment never came. During the period where I expected the film to pick up, screenwriter Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers (adapting from his novel) take the film in an almost laughably ham-fisted direction. From this point, I felt like I was watching a PSA on the dangers of technology written by curmudgeony old men (despite Ponsoldt and Eggers being 38 and 47 years old, respectively), and yet the film still plugged all the wonderful uses we have for technology in this day and age. I couldn’t tell what sort of film “The Circle” wanted to be or what kind of message it was trying to convey. Once I picked up on a sort of direction the film was going in, it quickly picked itself up and went into a completely contradictory and incoherent direction.

While the cast of the film is very revered and accomplished, not a single performance in the film inspires much of anything beyond perhaps a baseline indifference. Watson is fine as Mae, but the character that the film wants Mae to be and the performance that Watson puts forth are on two completely different levels, and Watson just doesn’t hit the bar. I also believe that Watson should be afforded what I like to call the “Emily Blunt Rule,” where no matter where the film they’re in takes place, they should be allowed to keep their natural English accents. While Blunt can do a convincing American accent, Watson simply can’t. While he’s second-billing, Hanks doesn’t have much screen time in the film, and his performance is hammy at best, in what I can only describe as “corrupt Steve Jobs,” but with the mannerisms of Dr. Doofenschmirtz from “Phineas & Ferb.”

Meanwhile, supporting performances from Oswalt, Boyega and Paxton (in his final film role before his death) all fall flat in their performances, not being able to rise above the screenplay’s hammy and overly dramatic dialogue. If one performance in the film made me feel anything, it would be Gillan’s Annie. While the character doesn’t show as much depth as someone like Mae, Gillan finds all the depth she can in her character and actually pulls it off, despite the disaster of a movie behind her. Though, if one thing about “The Circle” stuck out to me as the clear worst thing about the film, it would be Coltrane. While Coltrane found success in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” his work since has been less than inspiring. Here, Coltrane’s character is already annoying and useless, but add on a performance so stiff that it likens more to a mannequin than a human, and you have the makings of a one-hit-wonder performance.

“The Circle” isn’t a particularly attractive film either, despite being shot by Matthew Libatique. The film, despite taking place in environments with much color to be used, feels muted and toned down to a dingy gray, as if a shitty Instagram filter had been applied over the entire film. Despite taking place on a massive technological campus with what seems to be an insane amount of cool amenities, “The Circle” never seems to leave Mae’s boring desk and boring dorm, completely wasting every bit of visual potential the film might have had.

Remember those shots in the trailer that made the film look unpredictable and dark? Yeah, those shots are there, but when you place them into context, you see just how underwhelmingly dull “The Circle” actually is. There’s no real suspense, tension, activity, or even any real drama that gets put out in “The Circle,” rather just a series of speeches that almost blatantly tell you the agenda of the writer. While a film doesn’t need to have action to be exciting, “The Circle” lacks any real stakes for Mae, with her cruising along at her job just to come to terms with the problems of it through a single tragedy that doesn’t inspire any sort of emotion whatsoever.

There also is a scene that constitutes the PG-13 rating’s “a sexual situation” descriptor that leaves such a bad taste in your mouth that you’ll struggle to forget about even by the film’s end.

At 110 minutes, “The Circle” feels entirely too long, and yet it finds itself ending on such an abrupt note that you have to sit there for a brief moment just to make sure that the film really did just end at the place that it did, with hardly any sort of legitimate resolution. The film drags and then rushes its final act like it was realizing that audiences were becoming bored as they were filming. The worst part is that the film doesn’t set itself up for any sort of sequel, making its abrupt ending mean absolutely nothing but than just to further illustrate the film’s sheer hollowness.

And then we get to the completely laughable prospects that “The Circle” has as a company. Mae’s ideas for the company, as well as the serious implications made by the leaders are so completely ridiculous and out-there that it’s hard to imagine any company ever, even one as powerful as Google or Facebook, ever even thinking of trying to acquire as much comical power as “The Circle” did. In fact, one of the reasons I liked the character of Annie is that she is the only character to actually see how completely stupid it all is. It’s hard to take any of this film seriously when everything is so unrealistically tailored to fit the needs of the writer that any actual sociopolitical statement Ponsoldt and Eggers sought to make were lost among a sea of bullshit.

“The Circle” is just plain bad in almost every way. If anything, it shows how well-edited a studio can edit a trailer, and for that, I will give STX Entertainment and EuropaCorp my props for actually convincing me that this was going to be a good film. “The Circle” shows that a great amount of talent in a single piece does not always constitute a great film, which “The Circle” could’ve been had it taken the approach that Ponsoldt has taken on his previous films: with a great deal of almost painfully resonant realism. It’s shocking to see a director who sought for so much mundane detail to cap off his previous films go in such a ham-fisted, cheesy, silly direction after such success. “The Circle” might have worked as a satire, but as a serious drama, it is dead on arrival. I’m glad that most of the cast is established enough to take a hit like this in their careers, but I’m hoping that Ponsoldt can recover from a film like this, because with a film as truly awful as “The Circle,” especially with its awfulness being such a shock, it’s going to take a while to wipe this from my system.


Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment (EuropaCorp Films USA)

Directed by: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Ellar Coltrane, Patton Oswalt, Glenne Headly, and Bill Paxton.
Runtime: 110 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for a sexual situation, brief strong language, and some thematic elements including drug use.

EuropaCorp and Image Nation Abu Dhabi present, in association with Parkes+MacDonald Productions/Route One Entertainment, a Playtone/Likely Story/1978 Films production,
“The Circle”

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Category:Arts and Entertainment, Film

Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.


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Hunter Heilman Hunter is the current editor-in-chief for The Niner Times. He is a senior Communications major who wishes he were a dog and wants to pet your dog if you have one. Hunter has been a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA) since August 2015. Hunter has been the editor-in-chief since May 2016. Please do not hesitate to shoot him an e-mail at for any questions or concerns and he'll be sure to get back to you ASAP.