Reel Reviews: Dystopian thriller The Circle explores life in world of social media

For as long as humankind has been inventing and expanding, people have been nagged by an overwhelming fear of hubris. The myth of Icarus looms large as fears have arisen for Y2K, fears of singularity and of various forms of technology taking over to cause harm.

The Circle points this lens at a futuristic dystopian world addicted to an ubiquitous network of the same name.

The world of the film is introduced through the experiences of protagonist Mae Holland, played by Emma Watson, as she begins a desirable job at the aforementioned social media and technology company.

The company utilizes a system called TruYou to verify the identities of its users. One passage from the source material, a book by Dave Eggers, says, “The era of false identities, identify theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment systems was over.”

The company is made to be a utopian fix to the faults of the internet. Hacking, hiding behind screen names and anonymously posting cruelty is all taken care of.

One fault that has been pointed out about this film is its ill-timed nature. Film critic Hubert Vigilla writes on Twitter, “The Circle is a 2017 techno-dystopian thriller adapted from a novel published in 2013 that feels like it would have been timely in 2006.”

With social media and the internet as widely dispersed and non-monopolized as they are, the idea of a single conglomerate taking over all technology needs is not quite so feasible. The cautionary tale that The Circle intends to impart is weakened as a result of its unlikelihood.

Once Holland joins the company, she is sucked into a Silicon Valley lifestyle under founder Eamon Bailey, portrayed by Tom Hanks. Bailey is a not-so-subtle figure reminiscent of Steve Jobs.

The company has optional fun time that does not feel optional and places profiles over work in terms of importance. Employees excitedly gather to hear all new announcements from Bailey and the culture drags Holland in further and further.

As Holland starts using the social media more, the film effectively creates the feeling of a party in Jay Gatsby’s house, with “introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” Holland walks by people who say hello or briefly note her passing, but no lasting connections are made.

Unfortunately, those connections that are meant to be strong and meaningful do not match up to create contrast. There is John Boyega as Ty, the creator of TruYou and general face of disapproval. He watches Holland get sucked into the world of The Circle but never really tells her off.

Ellar Coltrane as Mercer does direct verbal disagreement toward her, but the only alternative he has in mind is a complete separation from technology. These relationships end up only feeling like potentials, not like real connections.

The film begins to hit its stride in its second half. Due to an ill-conceived incident, Holland agrees to become fully transparent in her life, with a camera on her shirt recording and broadcasting her entire life.

Details of how she gets dressed or goes to the bathroom without showing herself to the world are scant.

Plenty may be quick to make a comparison to The Truman Show, but the latter half of The Circle is more exhibitionist than it is voyeuristic. With Holland’s awareness of the cameras, the relationship between her and those watching becomes more bidirectional.

The best part of the film is the inclusion of on-screen depictions of commentary on Holland’s livestream.

Holland has a friendship with a young woman who previously worked at The Circle, Annie. She helped arrange the job connection in the first place.

Annie’s health begins to deteriorate as she overworks herself, though the exact circumstances are unclear.

This seems to be the overall fault of the film—assumptions are made as to the understandings viewers will have about relationships and events. There are large gaps that must be filled in by guesswork, breaking up the narrative.

The language of the film clearly communicates a negativity toward all that comes out of The Circle. There is something ominous about transparency and getting rid of secrets. At some points this is warranted and at others it feels contrived.

More than anything, The Circle decries technological advances without pointing out why they are problematic. Making sweeping generalizations about technology does not contribute to social commentary—it dilutes it.

The Circle is enjoyable, but deeply flawed. It intrigues and draws in, but the frosting hides something of an empty cake. Though lack of information can improve the stoicism and mystery of films like Drive or A Fistful of Dollars, this film gains nothing from that which is missing.

The film’s unlikelihood weakens its role as a cautionary tale and the broadness of its caution just sounds like a burst of general exasperation.