Cinema Dispatch: The Circle

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Unforgettable and all the images you see in this review are owned by STX Entertainment and EuropaCorp

Directed by James Ponsoldt

So you’re telling me that there’s a movie with Emma Watson, John Boyega, Tom Hanks, AND Patton Oswalt!?  This is either gonna be the greatest movie of all time, or a HUGE disaster if they managed to rope in THAT kind of cast for an EVIL GOOGLE movie!  Now techno-thrillers aren’t always the easiest idea to sell considering how hard it is to truly capture something that the world interacts with on a very intrinsic level on a daily basis which runs the risk of not fully understanding the material that is being explored (*cough* The Lawnmower Man *cough*) and even ones that succeed in that still tend to have a rather short shelf life considering how quickly technology changes and therefore what we fear about them does to.  Does The Circle manage to surpass expectations to become that one rare techno-thriller that ISN’T completely laughable, or is it yet another failed entry in the genre?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins with Mae Holland (Emma Watson) getting the chance to work in the Customer Service department of The Circle.  What is The Circle?  Well, it’s basically a social media account a la Facebook, but with a lot more functionalities tied to it… so basically a Google+ account if anyone actually gave a shit about those.  The Circle is ALSO the gigantic facility where all the employees work and most of them end up sleeping, eating, socializing, and partying for months on end; barely getting a glimpse of the outside world from their little techno-paradise.  They’re all led by their charismatic leader Steve Jobs… I mean Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks), who drags them all into an auditorium every damn week to tell them what crazy idea they’ll be working on next with his second in command Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) standing off to the side and making sure everything goes according to plan.  Now the longer Mae stays there, the more obvious that these people are acting just the TINIEST bit silly what with their undying devotion to the idea of THE CIRCLE (whatever the hell it’s supposed to represent) and them being one big interconnected community with no secrets.  After all, if you know something, then why not post it for the world to see?  She’s not the only one slightly skeptical about all this as some dude who just likes to hang out on the outskirts of the cool parties (John Boyega) also doesn’t trust what The Circle is up to, but then he doesn’t seem to be doing anything to stop it.  Anyway, The Circle’s plans for world domination… I mean effective social media services, gets creepier and more invasive as time goes on; eventually sweeping Mae right in the middle of it as she soon becomes a spokesperson for The Circle and what it represents.  Can Mae put an end to… whatever the hell The Circle is planning before it’s too late, or has she already drunken the Kool-Aid?  Will John Boyega get to do anything in the movie, or is he basically just a cameo?  Is there anyone less threatening than Tom Hanks, even when he’s trying to be a bad guy?

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Oh, he can’t be THAT bad, right?  Wait a minute… that’s what they WANT you to think!

This movie is freaking adorable.  It thinks so highly of itself and what it’s doing the same way a toddler feels a great sense of accomplishment for using the potty for the first time.  It’s Babies First 1984 with all the subtlety you’d expect when trying to hurriedly explain social media and the surveillance state to a child you feel is just not terrified enough of the world around them.  Honestly though, as much as I find this film to be non-threatening or even all that good as a propagandistic piece, it is so desperately trying to BE that that it eventually goes from being cute and precious to being REALLY god damn annoying and unpalatable; even though I kind of agree with the message they are TRYING to make.  You ever see those Truth Anti-Smoking commercials where they try to be HIP and COOL while being  neither and talking down to its audience?  The people who say that smoking kills cats and we need them for all those cat memes (because there’s NO better way to connect to millennials than with DANK MEMES) or that taking smoke breaks ruin friendships (because no other type of break exists like bathroom breaks)?  Yeah, this is two hours of THAT shit.  Two hours of Left Swipe Dat without even the slightest bit of humor, irony or subtlety.

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Nobody sits like that unless they’re up to something!

Now there’s plenty to talk about here in terms of its filmmaking and poor story structure, but let’s start with what the movie is trying to say and the way it’s trying to convey it.  The first strike against it is just how damn sensationalistic it is with the topic to the point of diluting its message as we never really get follow ups, lead ins, or even all that much closure to any of the plot points that are brought up just to take another jab at where all this social media and surveillance shit is going to the point of even contradicting itself as it tries to grapple with WAY too many subjects at one time.  There’s a scene relatively early one where two HR drones are cynically and slimily egging Mae into expanding her social media circle and introducing a seemingly arbitrary ranking system to show where she is in the social hierarchy of the company.  Now this on its own is a decent topic and in fact was pretty well handled in the South Park episode You Have 0 Friends; the pressures built into quantifying social interaction and the negative psychological consequences that can have.  Hell, we even see some of the same stuff in real life in the Freemium game market as some customers go bankrupt or become clinically depressed if they can’t keep up with their in game goals.  Instead, the movie just introduces it, mocks it, and forgets about it before moving on to whatever other topic it wants to get to before doing the same thing to THAT one.  There’s simply no depth here as it has to get through as many juicy ideas and inflammatory concepts possible, lest they spend enough time on one of them to show how fallacious some of their arguments are.  That’s not even to say that I DISAGREE with what they’re saying for the most part as ideas about security vs freedom in the modern age and how new technology is making it harder to live a normal life without making those sacrifices, but this damn movie can’t sit still long enough to construct their arguments out of anything but straw; hoping that the overwhelming number of strawmen they build will cover up the fact that we can huff and puff and blow them all down with some basic facts and counterpoints.

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YOUR CAMERAS BEING TINY DOESN’T MAGICALLY CHANGE THE LAWS ABOUT USING THEM!!

Even if we ignore the fact that their valid points are presented rather weakly, the movie manages to also make some bad and contradictory points that undercut whatever message they were going for, or maybe more ACCURATELY show the TRUE messages they’re trying to impart which are much more sinister.  The movie’s viewpoint comes off as rather isolationist and conservative considering just how little this movie has respect for anyone who DOESN’T believe that things were better before these newfangled techno-devices, and it seems like an odd take to have for a movie that wants to come off as modern and forward thinking as it does.  No one who works at The Circle is the least bit respected by the movie (the only ones that are tend to be the ones who suffer the most… though I’m not sure how) and social media is never given a legitimate shake in the discussions as its either the most extreme and horrific example possible or the incredibly telegraphed first step in a slippery slope.  It also imagines the biggest tech sector job in the world to be some liberal and multicultural bastion which is bullshit when you know the statistics on tech sector job diversity and the rise of “brogrammers”, yet the movie still thinks this is a… bad thing?  So… the way things ACTUALLY are now is what the movie thinks would be… better?  I don’t know.  What I DO know is that having your martyr of social media, the one who gets the most abuse and suffers the most because of The Circle, being a white dude who’s being sent death threats for hunting deer feels like the most tacky and tone deaf thing imaginable when you have even the most fleeting knowledge of who it is that REALLY gets targeted in social media (spoiler alert: it isn’t white dudes).  Oh wait, maybe he doesn’t even hunt deer as the movie isn’t very clear on THAT point either.

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Shouldn’t this place be filled with people SUPER concerned about ethics in game journalism?

So the movie falls flat on its ass when it comes to being about something relevant as it has no idea how to structure their arguments effectively and frankly have some troubling ideas that somewhat poison their message.  Does it at least work as a film on its own?  Eh… not really, though it’s not TERRIBLE I guess.  What it suffers from the most is being adapted from a book which is PROBABLY a bold statement for me to making considering I haven’t read the damn thing, but this shows all the hallmarks of taking a big story and smooshing it down to a feature length movie.  Maybe some of the films points are much more cogent in the book than they are here as I assume they would have much more time to develop, but even the more basic nuts and bolts of storytelling fall way flat here.  John Boyega, one of the best up and coming actors we have today, is absolutely WASTED in a role that literally makes no sense at all.  He created The Circle’s biggest program… yet somehow went OFF THE GRID (whatever that means and how that would even WORK in this world), but as far as I can tell in the movie… he never left?  Does… does no one actually know who he is?  Do all the Circle employees (or as I like to call them, Circle Jerkers) just never question why this one random dude that no one knows keeps hanging out on the outskirts of their parties, or do they KNOW who he is… but this is the ONE THING that everyone has agreed to keep secret?  There’s also a subplot about Mae’s friend at the company Annie (Karen Gillian) who seems to be slowly wasting away under the stress of working there… but it’s never given any sort of satisfying conclusion; neither is the political stuff about a senator trying to enact regulations on The Circle getting arrested it LOOKS like The Circle had framed her but the movie never even touches on that and another senator going all in on transparency with The Circle.  It LOOKS like they’re setting us up for a reveal that The Circle framed the former senator and is more than likely protecting the latter one, but… no.  We never get back to that story either.  Even the ending feels completely pointless as it’s not only revealed that the villains of this are the DUMBEST VILLAINS YOU COULD EVER IMAGINE (let’s build an advanced technological marvel and popular movement around ONE IDEA but then have that ONE IDEA be the only thing that could lead to our downfall!), but the movie just doesn’t feel the need to explain any of the fallout or give us closure on anything that happened before fading to black and bringing up the house lights.  It’s just so unsatisfying to sit through no matter what side of the debate that you’re on as it has zero payoffs for its setups and is paced like a game of Red Light/Green Light.

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“Ready?  And… WE’RE TALKING ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA!  NO WAIT!  WE’RE NOW GETTING AN EXPOSITION DUMB FROM JOHN BOYEGA!  NO WAIT!  WE’RE NOW TALKING ABOUT SELF DRIVING CARS!  NO WAIT!”

There’s no beating around the bus that this movie is a freaking disaster.  Absolutely do not waste your time and money watching this on the big screen… but it might actually be worth checking out once it gets a home release.  It’s kinda interesting in just how many ways it missed the point of everything it’s trying to argue for and how damn near unintelligible the story is beneath all that.  At the very least, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get another movie with Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt in the same scene.  Then again… maybe if they make a David S Pumpkins movie…

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