Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Circle (2017) - Movie Review

Technology is an amazing thing. With a single click and a few keyboard taps, you can communicate with people on the other side of the world. Decades ago, we made jokes about how everyone thought virtual reality was the big new thing; now, I can just walk into my local game shop and pick up a headset for myself. Medicine, computing and just human invention in general have taken massive leaps and bounds and it’s only getting bigger with time.
However, technology is also a very scary and potentially lethal thing. With enough know-how, that same person on the other side of the world can bring a SWAT team to your house just because you did better than them in Team Deathmatch. Decades ago, we made jokes about how the government is trying to monitor every little action we do; now, thanks to social media, we’re all pretty much giving up our every movement for public consumption willingly. Medical advancements continue to be challenged, destroying a person’s life is as simple as having the right computer program, and human ingenuity continues to reflect how flawed humans still are. With all this in mind, how does today’s techno-thriller do at discussing such issues?

The plot: Thanks to an in from her friend, Mae (Emma Watson) secures a job in The Circle, a tech company/think tank that works on furthering what technology is capable of in the modern world. As she assimilates into the group, she discovers that The Circle’s intentions may not be as altruistic as they first seemed. However, after already getting to the point of having her every movement broadcasted for the world to see, she may be too far deep in the organization to escape it.

Watson, for as inconsistent as her character is, seriously sells her dialogue. Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the main face of the Circle itself, as his warm and comforting demeanour makes some of the more terrifying ideas presented seem oddly appealing. John Boyega as co-worker Kalden may get way too little screen time for his character to properly resonate, but he manages quite well within those limitations. Patton Oswalt, even for a shadowy corporate worker, is rather bland, same unfortunately going for Bill Paxton and Glenne Headly as Mae’s parents. Karen Gillan as the aforementioned friend probably gets the most intensive material to work with, showing the physical and psychological effects of being a part of the Circle’s network, and she comes out the best because of it.

For the last several years, action-thriller franchises have been getting a lot of mileage out of rising fears of technological prevalence and the potential loss of privacy. From Fast & Furious to Mission: Impossible to James Bond, techno-paranoia is certainly in vogue, no doubt inspired by real-life instances surrounding whistle-blowers like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. I bring all this up because this film’s approach to this same topic is… interesting. Basically, rather than narrow in on the legitimately creepy feeling that you are being watched by unseen forces every second of every day, The Circle instead chooses to highlight the positives of such an arrangement. 
This only gets weirder once it sinks in how apt said positives turn out to be. Going beyond simple conveniences afforded by technology, the film delves into the way technology and social media in particular connects people together, providing experiences and opportunities that would not be possible otherwise. Isolating The Circle’s potential for tracking down criminals and fugitives is one thing, but showing how even the comfort of a complete stranger from across the Internet can be the greatest help a person can receive? Have to admit, that’s a new one.

However, even with how expansive the film can get with its portrayal of the effects of a constant online presence, both positive and negative, the film never really seems to take a side on any of it. It presents notions surrounding modern technology, most of which have the ability to be either understandable or spine-tingling depending on one’s own outlook, but it’s never anything concrete; it’s all just possibilities. As someone who tries not to take a strict side on most issues, I get why this approach might have worked but, by film’s end, it doesn’t feel like it’s made any real clear points.
If anything, the film seems a little too okay with its ideas of constant surveillance, only having Mae’s parents presenting any kind of counter-argument… and even then, it’s reduced to only one or two lines of dialogue. I’d almost call this subtle, if it weren’t for the fact that subtlety implies a genuine concrete answer being alluded to. I’m not too sure about that myself. This rather noncommittal stance concerning theme does work out okay at first, when Mae is being introduced into the Circle, but it starts to lose steam once it kicks in that this is the stance we get for the entirety of the film. Even when darker implications are brought into the fold, the film still continues with its initial mindset, resulting in a film where it’s kind of difficult to be invested in what’s on screen.

This is also a side effect of the writing, which I’m convinced had large swathes cut out of it in the translation from book to film. As the events unfold in the narrative, we never really get a solid idea of who is being affected by them and by what amount. It’s because of this that Gillan’s performance is as good as it is, seeing as it’s pretty much the only instance of character effect we end up seeing. There’s no real connective tissue from one set piece to the next, feeling like a series of moments that could be arranged in any real order without any loss of investment.
The biggest signifier of this is with Mae’s character arc, comprised of the usual stages of development (introduction, assimilation, rejection, re-assimilation, etc.) but without any cohesion to tie them together. Mae ends up going through a lot of shifts in terms of character perspective, resulting in a character who ends up more adamant about the constant invasion of privacy than even the higher-ups within the Circle itself. As a result, whenever any major actions are shown from her, they feel like they’re being done less because they make sense for the character and more because the narrative requires her to be at a certain point to continue. Kind of fitting that a film all about humanity losing touch with its social nature due to technology would feature a story this devoid of genuine human interaction.

All in all, I try not to use this descriptor for films these days but this is straight-up dull. A cast that seems to be trying to tap into as many sci-fi/fantasy fandoms as it can and a decent initial approach to the story aren’t enough to hide the fact that this film really doesn’t have a whole lot to say. It definitely tries, but through a combination of noncommittal stances and a possible inability to focus, it unfortunately doesn't succeed.

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