When the most striking aspects of a cinematic adaptation of a novel that’s anything but novel (see what I did there?) cannot even be solely credited to the movie itself, it’s safe to say that no one needs to particularly rush to see it (especially since reading the original book – presumably worthwhile enough for a studio to spend money obtaining the film rights – would almost surely be a better use of time).
Such is the case for James Ponsoldt’s The Circle. The two best reasons to see it rely almost entirely on factors mostly unrelated to the actual content of the movie: the plot and the casting.
Firstly, Dave Eggers’ sci-fi premise — basically imagining how the world could transition from The Cloud and social media to George Orwell’s1984 — almost can’t help but intrigue pervasively-interconnected modern audiences, which is lucky for the creators of this adaptation because they really do their darnedest to test that assertion of invincibility (yet another commendation the movie doesn’t deserve: the creative way that the novel’s title subtly indicates the contemporary resonance. The Cloud sounds exactly like The Circle, and social media has redefined people’s “social CIRCLEs”).
Yet movies based on preexisting material cannot be positively credited for any inherited qualities. Rather, they should only be evaluated on their execution of this inheritance, which in The Circle calls to mind such adjectives as boorish, clumsy, clunky, cumbersome, and plodding. Though the inventive concept makes the plot engaging enough, The Circle so insufficiently develops its characters that the narrative’s inevitable twists and turns – intended to be justified by their unconvincing arcs that skip over crucial beats – feel preposterous, ultimately leading to an eye-rollingly baffling and unearned happy ending.
The characters bring us to the second most compelling attribute: the casting. Skipping over Tom Hanks once again being Tom Hanks (who must be an avid reader given the number of book adaptations he’s starred in recently), a miscast Patton Oswalt, and pouring one out for Bill Paxton’s last part lamentably constituting nothing more than a formulaic “sick Dad with a heart of gold” supporting turn, I want to focus on the youngest members of the ensemble: Emma Watson, Elar Coltrane, and John Boyega. Their roles here reflect how their respective paths to early stardom influenced the type performers that they’ve become. Note, however, that my forthcoming appreciation is rooted more in the knowledge of their past work than their actual work in The Circle.
Emma Watson figuratively grew up in the visual-effects-heavy world of Harry Potter, in which she needed to project with every fiber of her being to be noticed through the magical CGI of Hogwarts. She wasn’t afforded much time — nor reason, given the directors’ penchants for focusing on gargantuan spectacle over intimate thespians — to adding emotional depth to her character, especially since audiences arrived having already solidified their heartfelt connection to Hermoine Granger. Yet now she brings this brand of overacting to all of her projects, even straightforward dramas like The Circle. When not surrounded by 21st century technological bells and whistles, nothing distracts from her performance feeling more performative than real.
Elar Coltrane’s route to Hollywood was almost the polar opposite of Watson’s; he literally grew up in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an achingly personal docudrama of sorts that demanded small-scale realism above all else. Grand performative gesturing would’ve wrung false in front of Linklater’s independent lens, forsaking the intended tone. Yet now that he’s venturing off to bigger projects – as any actor must if they want to make a living in this unforgiving industry – Coltrane hasn’t yet (he’s still so young!) learned how to modulate the size of his performance to match different scopes. As such, he’s practically swallowed up by the increased scale of his surroundings in The Circle.
John Boyega expertly splits the difference between Watson and Coltrane, a testament to the diversity of his background. Global audiences will undoubtedly recognize him as one of the leads from the current Star Wars franchise, but he first made a name for himself in the playhouses of London. His familiarity with playing to audiences of a few hundred in the theatre and a few hundred million in the land of George Lucas allows him to calibrate his performance based on the worlds to which his characters belong. As such, he’s equally comfortable in The Circle’s realistic galaxy as he is in galaxies far, far away.
Unless you’re a completist in terms of the career totality of up-and-coming performers, you’re better off skipping The Circle and waiting for whatever Watson, Coltrane, and Boyega do next, which will surely hopefully be superior…