Power, politics, surveillance, social media, privacy: The Circle (2017) had everything it needed to be a deep and critical commentary on the ethical dilemmas of today’s world. So why did it fall so short?
The Circle was set up to be a clever blend of modern tech thriller and mild political dystopia. Mae (Emma Watson) goes off to live in a strange corporate colony that provides its employees accommodation and healthcare. While developing the company’s projects as a social media provider, Mae discovers the problems that come from putting transparency over privacy, letting big companies tacitly threaten politics and observe each and every detail of our lives.
I watched The Circle expecting a juicy commentary on today’s world. The Circle (the company in the film) is so clearly a pastiche of Facebook and also nods to other companies like Google, whose exploits have gone way beyond their primary purposes and who control vast amounts of information about the users of their products.
Sadly, The Circle disappoints. Bland characters act inconsistently, exciting characters make fleeting appearances and the end of the film is as underwhelming as a lottery ticket for your birthday present. If you’re not a fan of the protagonist, bad luck: there are no sub-plots and no side characters, only her story. But what makes the anticlimactic bore that is The Circle worse is that there were so many opportunities to strike gold with the themes it considered.
Many critics chastised The Circle for not making a big enough dent in the genre. This seems unfair, as it’s a tall order to top things like Brazil or Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Circle is one of many modern films that dabbles just a little bit with dystopia. The Circle might not feature a society-gone-wrong, but it still enjoys a collective body of soulless drones, technology poking too far into our affairs and a handful of not-who-they-seem people calling the shots and watching everything you do. Films like this might not be groundbreaking, but they can still entertain and be moving. Equals, while more dystopian than The Circle, barely advanced the political dimensions of its society where emotions are medically suppressed, but it still portrayed a moving love story (even if it was largely pinched from Shakespeare).
But what distinguishes The Circle from Equals and other films is its setting: the present day. We can all relate to Mae, the protagonist of The Circle. Her world is ours, one of powerful corporations expanding their product, social media, into ever more areas of life; privacy is jeopardised by the relentless need to hold people accountable and clamp down on secrets; technology assists us at the expense of our relationships with others.
Hence, The Circle had plenty of ideas with which to work. It could have addressed some of the key political issues facing our generation. But the finished product was a hot-pot of half-baked thoughts and indications, lacking any substance.
The Circle could have concerned itself with the dark implications of a large social media company expanding way beyond its boundaries. Mae’s company starts challenging politicians and installing pea-sized cameras across cities. Maybe we could have seen the ethical dilemmas of a private company holding so much power over ordinary people by capturing and broadcasting so much of their lives to the rest of the world? Nah. The Circle boots the two baddies at the very end, but nothing changes besides who is in charge of the nasty company.
As Mae gets more involved in the company, she discovers that their pursuit of transparency threatens our privacy. Cameras installed all around the workplace and her home are justified with the concern for stamping out wrongdoing. And yet even the chance, horrifying spectacle of her parents engaged in some very private business only throws Mae temporarily. After a few scenes, she’s back, working hard on the next way of destroying privacy.
One scene featuring two scarily insistent colleagues could have brought the film into a Brazil/Nineteen Eighty-Four approach, where Mae loses her individuality to a bureaucratic collective of jargon-spouting freaks; but that was all we saw of it. The perfect opportunities to illustrate how much of our lives are being signed away to social media and tech companies are shown but never taken. “Hey, look at this!” the film seems to say, “now, follow it up in your own time.”
The film keeps providing Mae with reasons to doubt the uncompromising search for total transparency, whether it’s embarrassing her parents or causing the death of a childhood friend, but ends with Mae looking up at floating cameras filming her, feeling satisfied. No, of course it doesn’t make any sense. The film could have really shown us the dangerous consequences; but instead, to our surprise, the leading character accepts them with a smile.
The audience could have been treated to Mae’s repulsion of the effects of social media and corporate power. Through her eyes, we could have reviled at some of the major political issues facing us today. But instead, The Circle only touches the surface of the problem. Each theme is really a teaser, left undeveloped. In this way, The Circle failed to really break the mould and make any notable use the wealth of material at its disposal. That, and it’s a dreary bit of motion picture.
The Circle is available now on Netflix. Image source: IndieWire.com