Reel Talk

The Muddled Luddite Message of the Circle

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Back in 2013 I started to hear a lot of positive buzz about a new novel from Dave Eggers called The Circle. It was basically described as a semi-dystopia about an all-powerful technology company, similar to Google, and it’s transformation into a regime. It sounded like a very interesting and compelling story. It was not. I know people really liked that book, obviously enough so that they made a film adaptation of it, but I found it to be an incredibly dull and repetitive book. There were some interesting ideas, but the book seemed to be reaching for a page-length goal that the story couldn’t justify. We were stuck in monotonous descriptions of day to day life at the company, and pretty quickly the novel fell into a pattern that was basically “the Circle is evil, never mind the Circle is fine, no wait the Circle is evil, oh I guess it’s fine, no it’s evil,” ad naseum. Some aspects of the novel were rather engaging, but for the most part I found it a half-baked and rambling work that desperately needed a better editor. I then promptly forgot about the book, until I heard that they were making it a film. Which actually seemed like a decent idea to me. Some of my biggest problems with the novel were the pacing issues, the fact that it droned on and on and had a shocking amount of needless fat on it. And the process of adapting a novel to the screen necessitates cutting the fat, and getting down to the basics. Which had the potential to really fix the Circle. Especially when I heard that it was being helmed by the terrific James Ponsoldt, whose the End of the Tour was one of my favorite movies of 2015. Unfortunately it looks like that hope was unjustified. Because while this film trimmed some of the fat, it kept everything else about the novel that I absolutely hated.

The Circle tells the story of a young woman named Mae Holland. Mae is struggling to make ends meet, and trying to eek out an existence and take care of her parents who are struggling with her father’s MS. And one day she gets amazing news. A friend of hers, Annie, has gotten her a job interview at a massive technology company called the Circle. Mae heads into the interview, and ends up getting a job in the customer relations department of the company, getting tossed into the world of the Circle. It’s very similar to Google, with a massive campus full of amenities for the workers, and Mae is pretty quickly swept up in the new culture. She meets the charismatic face of the company Eamon Bailey, the stoic businessman Tom Stenton, and the mysterious brains of the operation Ty Lafitte. The Circle kind of does everything, primarily focusing on connectivity. The Circle’s goal is to make everyone’s online experience connected and open. They don’t believe in privacy, and want everything clear and accountable. Which is helped by their newest creation, small and powerful cameras that members of the Circle are encouraged to place all around the world, making it so that everyone can see everything at any time.

And around this time Mae starts to get a little concerned about the Circle. They’re basically a cult, trying to make her fully involved in the organization and peer pressuring her into opening her life up to the world. She tries to rebel against these restrictions by being by herself, and going for a late-night kayak ride. However, she gets into an accident, and almost drowns. Luckily, one of those cameras was nearby, and authorities were able to save her. From there Bailey and Stenton decide to make Mae a new spokeswoman for the company. She agrees to completely make her life open, wearing a camera every hour of the day, letting the whole world look in on her. And it’s a huge success. Mae becomes a celebrity, and her star quickly rises in the Circle. She becomes a mover and a shaker, despite learning that not everyone is doing well. Her parents hate being forced into this world, and try to regain their privacy by avoiding her. A friend of hers named Mercer hates the very idea of the Circle, and wants to live off the grid in a shack. And she even sees that the constant pressure to be perfect is breaking her friend Annie. She also gets word from Lafitte that the Circle is invading people’s privacy too much, and they need to stop. But Mae just keeps on preaching the word of the Circle, encouraging them to be more and more invasive. She brings up the idea of using the Circle to have compulsory voting in the United States. She helps create a project that will use the cameras to find wanted criminals. And she encourages more people to wear cameras at all time. However, things hit a snag when, during a demonstration of the criminal application, a flood of drones driver Mercer’s car off a bridge, killing him. Mae seems to take a step back from the Circle at that point, but by the end of the film we see her essentially lead a revolution against Bailey and Stenton to become the new head of the regime, with no end in sight.

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This is not a very good movie. I’ll try to keep things positive at first, because it’s not a total and complete train-wreck. Ponsoldt is still a skilled director, and despite the limitations he had with terrible source material, he still found ways to make things interesting. In particular the film made interesting use of social media, superimposing various screen over the characters so we could see what they were seeing without endless shots of computer screens. The acting was also rather good, across the board. Tom Hanks is always great, and really worked well as the charismatic leader of the Circle. Likewise, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Patton Oswalt play quite a stoic and uncharismatic character as Stenton, but it worked well. John Boyega is a terrific actor, and what little they give him to do he knocks out of the park, but most of his role is just standing in the back of conference rooms sternly shaking his head. And of course there’s Emma Watson, who does a fine job as Mae, despite how under-written and boring the character really is. The film also cut out a lot of the fat from the novel, which is a good thing. We don’t need to focus on all of the monotonous day to day work of her job, fixating on her survey scores for whole chunks of the movie. They also cut out basically all of the needles love interests from the film, completely removing one character that was always a guaranteed drag in the novel. However, the film still kept in some of the most objectionable things from the novel. The message.

We’re in a rapidly changing world, and privacy has certainly become one of the most important and divisive things in it. Now that life is moving more and more onto the internet the question of what we should and shouldn’t make available to strangers becomes more and more important. Social media is becoming increasingly prevalent in our lives, and thus the question of privacy and accountability. I personally am a big believer in having my online persona match my real life one. I don’t like to use screen names (other than the website’s name), I use my own name, and my own picture. I don’t tweet behind screen names and anonymity. But at the same time, I don’t want my privacy totally and completely invaded. These are some of the most important and nuanced questions that we have to deal with in the modern world. But this film takes all of these questions, and all of their shades of gray, and just seems to say “it’s bad.” We are certainly supposed to think that the Circle is an evil organization by the end. It becomes an oppressive cult where wanting privacy means you have something to hide. And thus, everything that the Circle does is evil. But I don’t agree with that. This film shows the Circle fighting for accountability in the world, fighting for compulsory voting to truly have a democracy, and for keeping people honest and decent in their online interactions. These are all things that I believe we need in our world. But this film throws all of these in with the surveillance state that the Circle tries to create as abominations to natural life. By the end of this film I feel like we’re supposed to want to live like Mercer, alone in the woods trying to be off the grid. But that’s no longer feasible. That’s not the world we live in any more. Information deserves to be free and available. But not according to this film. I get the feeling that the Circle was made for Baby Boomers who don’t fully understand what social media is, just that it’s something that Millennials like and thus is wrong. It’s a movie designed to scare people, to not trust technology, and one that tries to convince you that not being connected and listing to other people’s points of views is rebellion and right. Which is absurd. Everything about this film reeked of people who are seeing the world changing, and responding by shouting at the young people and telling them that they’re wrong because what they’re doing is different and scary. There are incredibly important discussions we as a culture should be having about privacy and accountability. And these discussions could make for a fascinating and nuanced film. Unfortunately this is not that film.

The Circle was written by Dave Egger and James Ponsoldt, directed by James Ponsoldt, and released by STX Entertainment, 2017.

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