Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Circle

Major Spoilers.

Is this movie trying to be what it appears to be trying to be -- a movie about a good idea taken too far -- or is it trying to be what it is -- the most disturbing and effective anti-technology, anti-mob-rule, pro-personal freedom horror movie I've ever seen?

It's a tough call, but to say it meant to be as horrifying as I found it would be to give it more credit than I'm willing to attribute...

What I expected based on the trailer and critical reception was a technology-cult movie, starring Emma Watson, with Tom Hanks as the seemingly-nice but really rather evil cult leader, and supported by John Boyega and Karen Gillan, that turns into an espionage-esque thriller in the end, a la Eagle Eye or Enemy of the State. Avoid-the-surveillance-to-save-the-world kind of deal. That wasn't it at all.

So here's what really happens: Mae (Watson) starts the film with a friend from her neighborhood, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) who's notoriously off the grid and opposed to using social media. Mae gets an enviable job at The Circle, which essentially combines all social media and internet-things into one interface. She lives on-campus, and is strongly encouraged (and passive-aggressively peer-pressured) into taking part of the social media interaction with co-workers. It basically part of the job to be socially active in the community.

There was an underlying "off" element to it that was intentional. By the end I had no clue what it meant by it.

In her effort to further her popularity in this community, she shares a photo of a deer-antler chandelier Mercer made for everyone to appreciate. Next thing you know, he comes to her work to complain that he's received a plethora of hate-mail including even death threats from her followers, accusing him of being a deer-murderer. He doesn't kill the deer himself, it's hurting his business, and it's making him much more web-present than he's comfortable with. As they talk and she apologizes (she had no idea that would be the outcome) Circle community members gather around them, filming with their phones and calling him "deer killer" to his face. The scene is unsettling to say the least. But... casually.

Soon after, despite her thinking it all odd, and despite making friends with John Boyega, who it turns out, invented the interface and hates what it's being used for, she slips further and further into the social aspect, until, one day, for no determinable reason (or maybe I just can't remember) she does a thing called "going fully transparent" in which she wears a live-streaming camera on her shirt 24/7. This rockets her up in popularity, alienating her friendship with Annie (Gillan) who got her the job in the first place. She starts going to board meetings and participating in the furthering of the business.

One second she's scoffing at it, the next she's more involved than anyone.

A few ideas later, she's giving a presentation to the community, in which, because of the size that Circle users and her "fully transparent" stream-watchers has grown to, she makes an experiment. Can her millions of followers with their cameras track down a fugitive from justice? She starts a timer and it takes them ten minutes to locate and arrest an escaped convict. Then she asks for a suggestion from the crowd: who else should they find? Mercer, they say. She says no. They start a chant. Tom Hanks intervenes, and "encourages" her to give them what they want. Fine. She starts the timer, and less than ten minutes later, Mercer is dead; following a car chase with phone-wielding busybodies.

After that Mae goes home for a while to reevaluate her life. What was wrong with The Circle that it caused such a tragedy? Four days later she returns, goes full transparent again, and using her smarts and the pressure that her great following endows her with, essentially forces Tom Hanks (And Patton Oswalt? For some reason?) to join her in her full transparency, having already hacked their emails (even the super-duper-ultra-secret ones) and sent them out for the whole Circle community to see. The film ends with her having assumed control over the whole company by power of popularity alone, and revealing plans to force the whole world into participation and transparency.

Because people behave better when they're being watched; because secrets are lies; because withholding information from people is equivalent to stealing from them, and because participation in society is vital. Wow. For a moment, as the upbeat pop music played over the colorful pastel palate of the credits, I was downright angry. Then it occurred to me: perhaps that was the intention. If not for the upbeat credits and my conviction that Emma Watson would have never agreed to play that character if she saw her how I saw her, I might be fully convinced.

There's NOTHING this movie says that I agree with. I can't figure out what was meant sincerely and what wasn't!

So much sits so wrong, not just the part where she caused her friend's death and then doubled down on the promotion and distributing of the tool used to bring about his demise. She outs Hanks by force, and we the audience are never even told of anything he did wrong. Her friendship with Annie is repaired by Annie, when she quits her job and returns to the simple life in Scotland. She seems finally happy. Mae is happy for her. Then she immediately goes on with her final plan. She even plans forced participation in voting. And none of these things are argued against except that they will make you sick to think of them.

What I most found disturbing though, was the talking points that secrets are lies, (there's no rebuttal to that portrayed) and that not sharing an experience you've had with someone is really stealing from them. That's why Mae goes full transparent actually (there, I remembered). After she confusingly breaks the law to go kayaking at night, tips over and is only rescued because of surveillance cameras, she realizes that people wouldn't break the law if they were watched constantly, but even more importantly, realizes that because she didn't film her kayaking experience and share it with people (particularly those who are incapable of doing such a thing) she was selfishly stealing from them.

So, this movie says (and never offers a counter to this argument), if you watch a sunset, and don't take a picture for your Instagram feed, you're actually stealing from every person who would have seen it. The movie says this with such a serious, literal, "theme vocalized" tone that I'm having a hard time believing it meant it any other way. Based on the tone I picked up, it seems completely like the movie's intention was to show the ups and downs of technology, but ultimately to show how it's more good than bad. It succeeds in doing the opposite; but only by being terrible at doing the first.

The worst movie ever.... and it reads like prophesy.

Maybe the intention was to turn it all into the most subtle horror story of all time. Even then it's just plain bad. The plot is too convoluted, events are forced and senseless, the acting is terrible, the characters either bland (Mae) or wildly underused (everyone else) and it's completely lacking in style. It has the style of your average bland romantic dramedy, but there's no romance and the drama is sci-fi horror played like simple drama. Mae's actions are impossible to characterize or get behind, yet she's ever presented like a true heroine.

Perhaps two years ago when it was made it did come across as more extreme and obviously presenting a bad scenario, in which technology is used to destroy lives only to be further embraced for the damage by the masses -- but today it almost sounds... genuine. And that's the scariest thing of all.


  1. I saw this movie last year and I wasn't impressed either. There just seemed to be no plot at all. What really made me angry was her experiment of tracking people down through the internet. While it might be well and good for convicts, what about a woman who is trying to escape an abusive husband/boyfriend? That just really drove me insane.

    1. Yeah, that was the big thing for me too, even before Mercer got killed because of it. They even tried to make out the convict as a horrible person but it just felt so wrong while they were chasing her down with cameras. That's a great point too. Just an all-around bad idea.

  2. I was so excited when I got to watch this movie because “IT HAD EMMA WATSON!” But then I got exactly what you described and I was sooo disappointed, like beyond words. I mean, there were aspects that I liked cause it had a TON of potential, but then it just fell flap, like flatter than a pancake kinda flat.

    1. It did have potential -- mostly from my perspective as scifi thriller or even horror, but yeah... Emma could do nothing for it. No one could, it really was so misguided from the beginning. Too bad since that cast it had could've been great.