Mark Reviews Movies

The Circle (2017)


1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: James Ponsoldt

Cast: Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Ellar Coltrane

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for a sexual situation, brief strong language and some thematic elements including drug use)

Running Time: 1:50

Release Date: 4/28/17

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 28, 2017

To say that the final shot of The Circle contradicts the movie's lesson is a bit of an understatement. The story is one in which characters slowly learn that voluntarily giving up their privacy for the sake of convenience and hollow fame can be a problem. The movie ends with a shot of a character smiling and greeting a pair of drones that have arrived to broadcast her across the web, while she's engaged in an activity that the movie repeatedly has established is her only opportunity to have some time to herself.

She's happy, we suppose, because she publicly stated a lesson about the potential dangers of a world in which every moment of every person's life can be available to the world. She said it, but did she learn nothing?

The lesson isn't that simple. It's actually simpler than that. The problem isn't that people have given up privacy. It's that they've given up their privacy to certain people and through the means of giant near-monopolies of technology, which talk a good game about the benefits of having the entirety of your online identity accessible through their services, while failing to mention that they have their own agendas. If anything, the screenplay by director James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers (upon whose novel the movie is based) is pragmatic, which is a generous to say that it passes the buck of responsibility until only two fictional characters are to blame for the mess that has unfolded within the story.

What unfolds is a plot based upon a ridiculously extreme series of online programs. Mae (Emma Watson) gets a cushy job with the Circle, a web company with tools that are as intrusive as their campus layout is impractical (on an island with all of the office buildings forming a circle around the grounds). Bailey (Tom Hanks), the head of the company, has recently developed a tiny camera that can be stuck to any surface, monitors a variety of environmental factors, recognizes faces, and comes in a variety of colors for camouflage purposes. As Mae becomes a social butterfly within the company, she's eventually enlisted (after a near-death experience makes her an internet celebrity for some reason) in a marketing campaign that has her continuously broadcasting her life.

It takes a while for the story to get there, and in the meantime, the screenplay hypes the advantages of what amounts to private surveillance. Bailey has weekly speeches, in which he makes emotional arguments for a constantly online and fully connected world. Everything about it has the aura of a cult, where employees talk about implanting tracking chips into the bones of infants without realizing how silly it sounds and a pair from human resources insists that Mae makes her life transparent to her co-workers—and her 24-7 health status available to the company through a high-tech bracelet.

In case we don't know that something is amiss here, Ponsoldt and Eggers give us Ty (John Boyega), who developed the program that connects a user's online identity into one account (through the Circle, of course). He now stands in the background with a look of disgust and offers Mae a glimpse of Bailey's plans for getting the personal information of as many people as possible. Also, a character who doesn't matter for the majority of the movie dies in a completely avoidable accident, just so we know this is really, really bad stuff. Well, it's bad except for all the good stuff.

The movie's outlook seems to be this: The internet is a thing that exists, and while it can be used for good or for ill, wouldn't it be nice if we all agreed to use it for the good of humanity? It's supposed to be optimistic, hence the smile and the polite greeting that meet those drones at the end. Who's controlling those drones, though? Who's watching this woman in a private moment, and why are they watching her? Did she agree to the drones' presence and, especially, the fact that they just hover there, recording her for a long time? Seriously, did she learn anything from any of this?

The movie doesn't care. It's a modern-day fable with a moral that's arrived at by way of a monologue and a smile. The Circle doesn't want us to consider anything beyond what's said and how the protagonist reacts in that final, decisive moment. She knows the consequences of the bad part of constant online socializing, so instead of blindly trusting the judgment of a hypocritical corporation, we should just blindly trust her judgment on the matter. Forget the character's ability to learn a lesson. Does this movie actually teach anything?

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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