You might remember The Circle from April, when it enjoyed a limited theatrical release that critics treated a little bit how a dog might treat its favourite chew toy. Since then the film, which was directed by James Ponsoldt and adapted from a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers, has been sneakily picked up by Netflix, and was rolled out this week as one of their “Originals.” Someone at Netflix should probably look up the word “original”, because I don’t think it means what they think it means.
What’s it about?
Emma Watson is a small-town girl who secures a dream job working for a sprawling tech giant called The Circle – which is basically all your favourite real-life tech giants, only with “but evil” added as an addendum. It’s basically Facebook, but evil, although it’s organised like Google, but evil, and it’s run by an enigmatic figure not unlike Steve Jobs, but evil. Watson gets this job thanks to a jet-setting workaholic friend (Karen Gillan) who’s already there, but she quickly ascends the corporate ladder by being worryingly okay with the company’s invasive surveillance-state expansion methods, and becoming, through a process known as “transparency”, which livestreams her day-to-day existence, something of a pet celebrity.
So how is The Circle evil?
That’s a fucking good question, because the movie never explains it. The Circle’s run by Tom Hanks and Patton Oswalt, and structurally and thematically it’s clear that they’re intended to be the picture’s villains, but they’re never shown to be doing, saying or thinking anything explicitly evil. Yeah, sure, the moral implications of their technological developments and company policies – which include nigh-invisible cameras positioned all over the globe, a search engine that can locate anyone on earth within 20 minutes, and, eventually, a mandatory Circle account for anyone of voting age – are distressing, but these things are all unveiled on-stage in laugh-a-minute demonstrations to the whooping and hollering of The Circle’s assembled employees.
I know that this is intentional, by the way. The suggestion is that the cloud isn’t just something these people use for storage, but arguably what they live on. The moral and ethical realities of unauthorised surveillance and the use of personal data never quite register for these people because they’re being sold the dream of a privacy-free utopia; The Circle’s inventions are all spun as altruistic, revolutionary, for-the-people technologies that lift the lid on government secrecy and allow, for the first time in human history, truly representative and fair democracy. That’s the marketing spiel, anyway, but given that the movie never provides Hanks and Oswalt with any kind of endgame, it might as well be true.
Isn’t all this stuff obviously evil, though?
It’s obviously unethical – not evil. There are arguments for and against, but we’re never actually given the arguments against. What this means, in narrative terms, is that there are no stakes, no drama, and no reason to care. There’s barely even a villain.
How The Circle tries to reposition this is as a broad critique of the end-user, such that Watson’s character becomes the nominal villain, which is something that I’m told happens in the book with some conviction. Here’s it’s just a half-arsed go-nowhere character arc that seems to cease right when it’s getting a little bit interesting; much like a subplot involving Gillan’s character, that the movie literally just forgets about, and another concerning John Boyega as the initial creator of The Circle’s wildly-popular social media platform, who’s allowed to vocalise Plot Stuff in maybe two or three scenes.
To properly explain how all this actually plays out in the movie would be getting into spoiler territory, and it’s better to experience the absurdity of it for yourself, but suffice it to say we’re dealing with cyber-bullying, and what can only be described as the literal embodiment of what certain people think is going to happen whenever an anonymous Twitter egg criticises their work.
This sounds like a satire.
If only. Were that the case The Circle might actually be tolerable, rather than a boring, backward slog through nonsensical material that it evidently knows very little about. The unintentionally hilarious thing here is that The Circle is trying to vilify the laidback Millennial workspace aesthetic, which reminds me a great deal of the Lifeinvader mission from Grand Theft Auto V, only played completely straight. There’s nothing here that’s any more ridiculous than what happens there, and it’s worth remembering that the goal of that mission in the game is to pose as tech support in order to assassinate the company’s Zuckerberg-style figurehead – an act you later watch live on television.
Okay. How is the cast?
Perfectly fine, and that’s part of the problem. You need to have a certain amount of legitimate talent involved in this kind of project to treat such bollocks with this much earnest sincerity, and it just means that The Circle is all the more laughable. Watson is actually really good here, ropey accent aside, and Tom Hanks as an avuncular down-with-the-kids genius works about as well as you’d expect. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that being a fan of any of the cast is a suitable reason to watch this, though – it’s like catching a parent having sex. (Incidentally, that’s another profoundly misguided thing that happens in The Circle.)
So it really is that bad?
It’s utterly terrible – a relentlessly stupid and paranoid tech-thriller that is arguably the worst movie of the year so far, and certainly the worst one to be so recognisable, and to star such a talented cast. It wants to be a cutting-edge warning about the dark side of Silicon Valley, but it plays more like a warning about the dark side of Hollywood moviemaking. Give this one a frown.
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