Director: James Ponsoldt
Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Bill Paxton, Glenne Headly, Ellar Coltrane
Plot: Mae (Watson) joins a tech company that believes that all-knowing information can solve most of the world’s problems, blind to the severe consequences.
Social media can be a double-edged blade. I am a big advocate for the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as someone who markets themselves online (through this blog and my film-making), I like being able to access public opinion at a whim and be able to promote myself internationally at the touch of the button. Even non-professional people must benefit from the ability to stay in touch with friends who move away without missing a beat. Remembering those pesky birthdays that always seem to allude you. And event notifications mean you never have to have that nagging feeling you are forgetting something important in the corner of your brain. However, the likes of Facebook also occasionally throws up a startling negative that has accidentally passed us all by. The wrong kinds of people (terrorists, sexual predators, Arsenal fans), also have access to this well of endless information. Snapchat now lets people know where you are whenever your account is live (which is usually most of the time to the unwitting). Social media is an amazing source of power, but its flaws are so hidden that by the time you realise them, it is almost too late. The Circle is all about those hidden dangers.
The Circle, like the Cloud, is one of those companies that’s definition is so vague, the movie doesn’t really have to explain it all that much to get the point across. What we know is that it is almost like a progression of Facebook, where social media also contains other services, like bill-paying and tech advice. Mae, Emma Watson’s plucky young heroine, gets a sought-after yet modest job at the company, answering customer service questions. Upon her arrival, she learns that the company is more than just a job, but a lifestyle. Sheltered from the outside world on a campus, The Circle is more like an University grounds you never have to leave, every need catered for inside The Circle’s walls. To the naked eye, it looks amazing, as Karen Gillan’s work-hard, party-hard best friend character tours Mae around campus. Your colleagues are also game for spontaneous nights out, kayaking trips or quick coffees. Whatever your passion, there is someone nearby willing to share it with you. The Circle invites us into this dream world, and then slowly pulls back the curtains revealing the troubled waters that lie within. For example, Mae appreciates the facilities available to her, but, focused on her work, tries to earn her place in the company first. However, soon her colleagues use the Circle’s social media interface to clock onto this and quiz her in her lack of participation. This is a more real issue that one might think; anyone who has been to an University has had someone attempt to strong-arm them to join a society. Mae ends up needing to turn her personal life into a secondary job. In promoting her ‘happiness’ constantly on social media, she is putting more work into looking happy than being happy. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks’ charismatic alumni of the Circle has invented a new form of portable camera that acts as a cheap, wireless Go-Pro. It can be stuck anywhere to show a live feed of a certain camera angle. Tom Hanks promotes it as a useful means to monitor what the traffic is like before you leave home for work or a quick way to check the busyness of a beach you are thinking of going to. No one is denying the positive implications or even Tom Hanks’ sincerity in pushing along human culture, but the negative impacts are clear. By giving everyone this technology, it is too easily accessed by stalkers, terrorists and people with the wrong intentions. One throwaway scene sees Karen Gillan have to remove one of these camera from a toilet cubicle before she can use it. Even when used in the right way, you can feel the privacy being slowly pulled from under you. The movie proceeds to boast several positive benefits from the Circle and then distorts it, so we can also understand the negative side. I am sure many people will have to nod in agreement, when Emma Watson suggests the Circle is used to make voting in general elections mandatory, but in being so excited in what they have the power to do, they only think about the solution from one angle. As the movie slips deeper into the murky depths of online presence and the downsides to giving the people too much power, you are left shocked at some of the potential outcomes of ‘doing the right thing’.
The Circle has been trashed quite strongly by some of the online critics (which, I suppose, only serves to boast the point the Circle is trying to make). For one, the story is interesting, but doesn’t quite lend itself to entertaining cinema. Perhaps it is the style of the movie, in being accessible from a streaming site, there is the sense that you are one click away from watching something more pulse-quickening. This is also a story that doesn’t benefit from an easy answer. As the movie hits the final third, setting up the Circle to be a dictatorship that doesn’t even realise it, any cheap conclusions would ruin the power of the story. You expect an anarchy rebellion to begin brewing, probably led by John Boyega who spends the entire film on the sidelines. Sadly, there is no such easy option and Boyega’s character only serves to be a differing point of view on the events as they happen. In fact, few of the cast get to do too much other than flex their already-established charisma. Tom Hanks could be panned for simply being Tom Hanks on a stage, delivering lectures and grand speeches. But that is the whole point of the character. If we were told that our privacy is being taken away by someone not as easy to dislike as Donald Trump, but a well-established ‘nice guy’ like Tom Hanks, it is easier to dupe us into signing up to the wrong services. Emma Watson’s character is more led by the script than her character. For the whole movie, you are left wondering if she is playing along with the Circle to take them on from the inside or genuinely being brainwashed into their way of doing things. The answer is most likely somewhere in the middle. The only actor here who breaks into new ground is probably Gillan who impresses as a key cog in the machine, who begins to lose her footing. However, while perhaps the movie isn’t quite cinematic material, it does scream brilliance with the smaller scenes. As Emma Watson broadcasts her day through a live-stream, the comments are easy to miss yet speak volumes about the internet culture. Passive aggression comes naturally, fans waste away in front of their laptop screens building a connection with the people on the live-stream who they don’t truly know and some comments offer pearls of wisdom that are drowned out by the banality of the other commenters. There are some bigger shocks too, perhaps predictable, but then again, in the case of this movie, predictability strengths the point rather than dilutes it. By the time, the Circle rocks to a close, you will be left thinking about how social media is impacting our lives and whether it has the power to subtly rob our lives from us.
Final Verdict: A smart reflection on the social media age, which opens debates that need to be discussed.