“We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works.”
– Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Truth
When you have the chance, you should watch this YouTube video about Aaron Sorkin’s writing. It’s the third of the “Sorkinisms” videos in which editor Kevin T. Porter compiles montages of the Emmy-/Golden Globe-/Oscar-winning writer’s frequently recycled dialogue. Sorkin is actually one of my favorite writers, but not even I am blind to his many, many flaws. The first two videos cover the recycling pretty well; the third focuses on one of Sorkin’s more notable biases. No, not his sexism, moral hypocrisy, or unresolved daddy issues – this video covers, to use his own words, his “fucking disdain for the Internet”.
Sorkin is one of those folks who think of the Internet as incontrovertible proof that we have failed, both as a society and as a species. These town criers in the village of Analogue All-Good turn their noses up at the mere idea of letting their precious fingers be polluted from having touched some $300-plus device made in a Chinese sweatshop to crush imaginary candies. Like vinyl record snobs enthusiasts, anti-Internet folk feel that the Information Age has done nothing more than de-legitimize the world’s most important events; that it’s merely given voice to the unwashed masses whom those detractors feel should never speak to begin with. “E-mail is no more mail than French fries are French,” they yell (probably).
Aaron Sorkin did not write The Circle, but I imagine he’ll be the only one to enjoy it. After scoring two Oscar nominations (and one victory) for the back-to-back Internet-bashing biopics The Social Network and Steve Jobs, only someone as nakedly anti-Internet as Sorkin could find the appeal of a poorly-written, badly-acted, horribly-edited screed against the tech lifestyle not seen on the big screen since The Net with Sandra Bullock.
Mae Holland’s (Emma Watson) life is uninteresting. She’s just a kayak-loving cubicle-jockey at public utility in Northern California. She lives with her parents, frequently runs into an old would-be boyfriend, and experiences every day the same way she did with the one before it. All of that changes when her best friend Annie (Karen Gillan) scores Mae an interview with the biggest tech company in the world: The Circle.
After acing the interview, Mae immediately gets to work at their lush San Francisco campus, run by the amiable Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). What’s more, her pay grade instantly increases, her MS-stricken father (Bill Paxton) gets excellent medical coverage, and she gets to brag about having a job at place most people would dream of working.
But all is not right within The Circle. It doesn’t take too long for the company’s notorious privacy policies and Stepford-like employees to rub Mae the wrong way. Her suspicions are raised further once she meets paranoid engineer Ty Lafitte (John Boyega). Is Mae giving into paranoia, or will descending further into The Circle leave her unable to escape?
Oh, where to start?
As I sat in the auditorium watching this flick, I started writing down movie titles in the margins of my notepad: the aforementioned The Net; Antitrust, the cheesy 2000 “techno-thriller” with Ryan Philippe and Tim Robbins; and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street; and The Devil wears Prada, to name but a few titles. The Circle fits into the well-worn clichés the former movies drug into the ground. It resembles the latter two (which are actually good films) by telling the story of an ambitious young employee who gains the world, but loses her soul. It resembles the former two by being an instantly-dated screed against technology.
Don’t get me wrong: I know that from a pure scientific standpoint, analogue technology has certain advantages that digital can’t replace (it’s the reason my description for this site notes the fact that I write on a manual typewriter, which I do for personal preference rather than to make a statement). But I’m not ignorant enough to think that digital is an inherent bane on society (which is why I have this site to begin with). Hell, I spent the better part of 2015-16 writing about wonderful technological advances that could only have been made in our digital age. But those advantages are lost on novelist/screenwriter Dave Eggers and film-makers behind The Circle.
To them, analogue-exclusive folk are a higher form of human being. The Circle personifies this through the character of Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), Mae’s would-be old flame. He’s the mouthpiece for Eggers spouting off poorly written lines about how emojis and Like/Dislike hearts and smiley faces are akin to kindergarten stickers and represent a state of arrested development. When Mae dares to snap a photo of one of his sculptures that he liked, he shows up at The Circle to confront her. “Why didn’t you call or text?” she asks. “I wanted to see you in person,” he scolds. Real people don’t do digital, apparently.
What’s worse is that the film-makers are so busy shaking their fists at digital technology that they have no idea how it works. One of the “good characters” – John Boyega’s Ty Lafitte – claims to be “off the grid” and paranoid about being spied on. Yet everytime we see him (and I mean every time), he’s on his smartphone. Because, y’know, it’s not like those can be tracked and snooped on. The fact that Lafitte just disappears during the final act shows both how poorly developed is his character as well as the film-makers’ understanding of their topic.
With all of this poor storytelling, you’d think that at least the film’s production qualities would make up for their lack of screenwriting prowess. Such is not to be. The film is shot by the masterful Matthew Libatique, but director James Ponsoldt has no idea what to do with such an artist at his disposal. As such, he and editor chop up most shots into one-second increments that won’t allow the audience to appreciate the skill with which Libatique composed each frame. And the score was so generic that I was surprised to see the eccentric Danny Elfman’s name attached to it.
And then there’s the acting. A lot of the actors – Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Glenn Headley – deliver decent performances (although the late Bill Paxton seems bored out of his mind). But Emma Watson’s entire performance consists of the apparent direction to be “a deer stuck in headlights”. Her voice, expressions, and gestures are all wrong for the character. The poor writing doesn’t help her, but she’s pretty painful to watch here. The only one worse than her is Ellar Coletran as Mercer. I didn’t see Coltrane in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, so I don’t know if this is exemplary of his skills, but he is by far the worst actor in this film. The fact that he’s supposed to be “good,” morally upstanding character makes his wooden delivery of each poorly written line all the more egregious.
The only one who does anything worth watching is Patton Oswalt as Hanks’ right-hand man. When a major revelation is made during the finale, Oswalt gives a WTF expression that makes one wish he’d acted the entire film on his own. Alas, ‘twas not to be.
Y’know, it’s funny: with all of the tech-related scandals in the news each day, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to make a compelling story out of one of them. Yet The Circle doesn’t want to do that. It’s content with taking the movie-of-the-week route and trying to terrify its audience with the mere fact that technology exists that was not around when our grandparents were young. The only good thing about it is that previous films of its ilk were forgotten almost as quickly as they were released.
The Circle can’t be forgotten soon enough.