Film: The Circle
Director: James Ponsoldt
Running Time: 110 Minutes
*This review contains spoilers*
Since their inception in 1997, Netflix have been revolutionary in changing the way that viewers engage with film and television; releasing seasons in their entirety has cemented the validity of binge-watching to a modern audience, hosting an on-demand service has made television scheduling practically redundant, and creating instant accessibility has permitted the creation of content that is immune to the constraints of timing and length. Considering that, amongst these strengths, the prevailing complaint of waiting for contractual obligations to expire – waiting for a new season to air before the previous one is available, or waiting for a film to move beyond the profitable DVD sales period – it is no surprise that Netflix began to produce and distribute their own content. The first Netflix Original series, House of Cards (2013), inspired the creation of some of the most popular television series in recent years – such as Orange is the New Black (2013) and Narcos (2015) – and eventually led into the creation of feature length films, such as Beasts of No Nation (2015).
For the most part, Netflix Originals are just that – Fresh insights into the potential for cinema, offering unconventional narratives, rich cinematography, and a platform for emerging actors and actresses to break through. Whilst many film critics tend to discredit the merits of Netflix films and reject them from most film festivals on account of them never being formally released into cinemas, there are some merits to the films that Netflix produce and this is reflected, to some degree, by the caliber of actors that are attracted to them. This is the case for John Boyega in Imperial Dreams (2017), or Brad Pitt in War Machine (2017). However, the casting of Emma Watson, Karen Gillan, John Boyega, and Tom Hanks in The Circle (2017) does little to elevate the narrative to the excitement that the billing inspires.
The Circle is, essentially, a marriage between the tone of the television series Black Mirror (2011) and the theme of the video game Watch_Dogs (2014). Mae Holland (Watson) secures a customer experience position at tech-giant The Circle, run by Eamon Bailey (Hanks). There are numerous allusions to Apple throughout the film; a headquarters similar to the newly designed Apple Park; a self-sustaining and all-inclusive experience which includes colleague groups, employee support networks, and recreational areas; devices – tablets, watches, computers, and wristbands – are all linked up to each employee ensuring that they are permanently connected with each other and the cloud. Combining the thematic approach to ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ and ‘Nosedive’ from the Black Mirror anthology, The Circle uses feedback systems to monitor the progress they make at work, their customers’ satisfaction, and their ‘popularity’, determined through engaging in almost-compulsory extra-curricular events until their residency means that they never leave. Yet, this is something that is introduced but left under-developed. Once it has been established, the narrative never revisits Holland’s score, never demonstrates growth or decline, or really shows the consequences of those that don’t meet the ideal score.
The Circle includes Holland’s parents onto their health plan to help with her dad’s struggle with multiple sclerosis, but everything is not perfect at the company. Holland is approached by Ty (Boyega) – a major designer responsible for the ‘Tru You’ software which sustains their in-house social media – and voices concern with the forced and superficial excitement of his fellow employees. It is understood that, after designing the revolutionary software, he went ‘underground’. It isn’t made clear how this was achieved whilst still working at The Circle and being surrounded by people that should, reasonably, recognise him.
Holland is taken below ground into a disused subway tunnel where she learns that The Circle is installing servers to store all of the information gathered by the company’s software. However, this is another string that is tugged and left to fall loose over the plot. Once Holland visits the server room, she never returns, the viewer is never allowed to see the scale of the servers or the ramifications of storing the masses of personal data. However, the suggestion is enough to plant a see of doubt in the viewer’s mind about the dangers of surveillance.
When the company reveals the ‘See Change’, a small adhesive camera that can be deployed all over the world, there is further cause for concern. First praised for being a tool for witnessing civil rights infractions, the ‘See Change’ soon becomes a tool to find fugitives. However, when a demonstration turns to find a civilian to prove the software’s power, Holland’s friend Mercer (Coltrane) is the target because he disappeared from her life when she shared a photography of one of his craft projects that turned for the worst. The exercise results in his death and inspires disillusionment with the concept within those closest to Mae. During the grief process, Mae goes kayaking in the river at night, capsizes, and is rescued by the camera operators watchful gaze.
The Circle unveils the true horror of a surveillance-state when Mae decides to go ‘fully transparent’ and wears a ‘See Change’ camera all the time, citing that she behaves better when she knows she is being observed. Over the course of her broadcasting she builds up to two and a half million streamers which support her through Mercer’s death and an awkward episode of catching her parents making love. However, an unexpected change of heart causes Holland to turn on her employers, Bailey and Stenton (Oswalt), by inviting them to go ‘fully transparent’ and leaks their emails, private emails, and company documents. This turn cannot really be described as a twist as much as an appearance from Beck can be described as a twist. Similar to a twist, it comes out of nowhere, with no indication of its arrival, yet the only difference is that the viewer finds it difficult to empathize with the significance of the event.
The impression is that, rather than taking down the tech company, Holland has simply performed a hostile takeover, demonstrating her belief that ‘Sharing is Caring – Secrets are Lies – Privacy is Theft’.
The Circle is a film that demonstrates real potential; exploring events that are relevant and engaging in an increasingly technologically dependent society. However, the real disappointment is that the film attempts to adopt a little more than it can nurture. Between secret servers, surveillance, underground agitators, conspiracy, and technological development there isn’t much room left for character dynamism, plot continuity, and developed tropes. That being said, The Circle is a film worth viewing and the message that Ponsoldt communicates definitely provokes thought for those open to questioning the progression of society, but expecting depth of content would only lead to disappointment.
If all else fails, watching Tom Hanks stroll around a building for two hours is entertaining enough to spend an evening on the sofa.