The Circle Review: Forrest Comp(any)

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The Circle has a message that’s really important for the world to consider right now, but unfortunately, I don’t think this is the package that is going to make them hear it. I happen to agree so it’s preaching to the choir with me. I just wish the audience were there, but in fairness, perhaps a conversation this big deserves more than a single movie to address it, and maybe it’s unfair to see The Circle as any more than a single entry into the spectrum of speculative fiction that’s trying to warn us about different nuances of the information age.

Mae (Emma Watson) goes to work for The Circle, a company so unnaturally friendly it seems like a cult immediately. When Mae discovers the master plan of founder Eoman Bailey (Tom Hanks), she actually sees his way and helps bring it to fruition. Eoman wants tiny cameras everywhere to document every single thing that ever happens to anyone. He calls it SeaChange.

The biggest chip against The Circle is that it’s already been proven obsolete. Eoman is talking about accountability, making people keep their promises and catching them when they violate them. With very basic technology, we’ve already seen that we have a video of a public figure saying something, they claim they didn’t say it, and people who have seen the video don’t care. SeaChange won’t even matter because no one will care who Eoman catches in the act. But, we are voluntarily giving information to companies and strangers so let’s talk about it.

The earliest stages of The Circle already make me antsy because that part isn’t even speculative. We’re there now with the companies who think forcing their employees to be a family is beneficial. “Optional” night and weekend activities where you get pressured to give up your free time… Sorry, you pay me for 40 hours, you get me for 40 hours. (Full disclosure, I don’t derive an entire 40 hours of weekly work from any single employer.) And that inane dependence on a quality control survey, where if she doesn’t get a perfect 100, it’s incessant follow-ups on, “What could I do to serve you better?” As if hounding me is going to make me happier with your service.

Mae doesn’t get around to setting up her social media right away, but that wasn’t optional. It’s part of the job description. Now, that part is valid in the changing media landscape. I’m expected to be on social media for my job. It gets unethical when The Circle expects her personal social activities to be part of her company profile too.

The staff is so indoctrinated they don’t even notice the absurdity of what they’re saying. It hurts their feelings when Mae does any solo activity. Grow up and stop smothering her. Their tone of voice is so condescending because it’s all “let us help you,” never “let’s utilize your inherent skills” because that would be validating her individuality.

It means director James Ponsoldt was effective at conveying the cult if it triggered all my real issues. It also shows that it’s not natural to maintain that “I love this community and I care about everybody equally” attitude. Annie (Karen Gillan) needs to take uppers, so that’s not a good long-term career plan.

You can’t even reason with someone who believes the ends justify the means. A woman working on anti-kidnapping technology is offended Mae thinks that putting tracking chips in children is absurd. How can you be against preventing kidnapping, Mae?

SeaChange is basically Minority Report, down to using it to monitor spending habits and providing that information to clients. We’re already there too with Amazon and Facebook. We should always be worried about giving up too information, and an incident in the film even shows how sharing things online can bring the wrong kind of attention. But, there are certain innate limits to the usefulness of this information that give me a little peace of mind.

The Truman Show already told us that it’s impossible to learn everything about a person. He very articulately said, “You never had a camera in my head.” Mae isn’t trying to keep secrets though, and The Circle could probably figure out a mind reading technology. The ratings of Big Brother also proved that real people aren’t actually interesting enough to spy on all the time unless it’s their adults only after hours activities. The Circle would get bored with most of us, but this is a movie. Even Sliver told us that spying on people was bad.

At one point Mae is so connected that a stream of comments follow her every waking move. Most of us know to ignore the comments section. Imagine living with one 24/7. That’s a horror movie. The comments realistically range from generic to sincere, pointless to hurtful. Pay close attention to the top left for my favorite comment. It certainly gives you more to watch for on a second viewing.

I know a mainstream movie is never going to address this, but my first question is when are you supposed to masturbate? Does The Circle expect everyone to just give that up? They probably don’t care about masturbation unless you’re looking at child porn or bestiality, although I bet if you’re into bug crushing The Circle would hold onto that info for blackmail. They do address the sexual issue but played as an innocent mistake, not the broader implications of a company being able to monitor all aspects of your life. At least they address the bathroom issue. Not even The Circle wants to see you poop, but I’m still astonished at the short amount of time for which they’ll turn off the camera.

You could say the inevitable downfall of SeaChange is predictable but predictable hasn’t been able to prevent real life disasters anyway so I think it serves a constructive purpose in movies. No one believes the consequences will happen until they happen to them, and often not even then. People rationalize other excuses or forget quickly enough to cause more damage. At least drama can warn us in the hopes that some people learn to foresee tragedy and make better decisions.

It is also poignant that micromanaging the world’s behavior won’t fix things. There will always be something you couldn’t predict and all those rules create new problems. Mae thinks she can force good behavior on people because human nature is not good enough on its own. Perhaps the real lesson is there’s no amount of regulating that can prevent people from being A-holes. They just become a different kind of A-hole on camera.

It briefly touches on a political issue. One character is shown to be appalled but it doesn’t delve into the real ramifications of a company having even more invested in politics than companies already do.

With issues this complex, too often they presented as people talking about things. Eoman gives a presentation, Mae speaks to the board, she’s on camera addressing the audience or on back and forth video chats. It goes to show you that our narcissistic communication tools are not cinematic. When Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) wants to speak privately, he tells Mae he wanted to look her in the eye. It’s a tad blunt. You can be a luddite without talking about how anti-technology you are. There’s even a joke about “Here, try this Kool-Aid.” See, aren’t we self-deprecating about making a cult movie?

But, those are far more forgivable problems than many of the summer blockbusters have, and they get pass. I’m glad The Circle is out there and gave me so much to discuss. This is a conversation I’m happy to have with people. But I’m still not going to read the comments on his. I mean, come on.