The Circle: Privacy is Bad and So Is This Film

A narrative reminiscent of an Orwellian novel? Check A talented cast consisting of Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Karen Gillan and John Boyega? Check. A timely interrogation of the reaches of social media? Half a tick. What should be a unique and thought provoking film? A big fat X.

The Circle (dir. James Ponsoldt), recently release onto Netflix after its limited theatrical run in April, tells the story of a young woman called Mae (Emma Watson) who lands a job at the biggest internet/social media conglomerate in the world. The film never talks in specifics about what it is that Circle is (it’s implied that it’s an amalgamation of Instagram, Facebook, Google and probably Youtube), nor is it explained to us what Mae’s job actually is. She is assigned a customer service role, where her main focus seems to be on retaining a good feedback score from customers – though it is never explained what her customer service entails. Her job, of course, is incidental, as Mae soon finds herself immersed within The Circle – both physically and mentally.

Confused and unfocused, The Circle makes small nudges towards criticising companies like Google, Facebook etc for their anti-piracy stance, but fails to either decide where it stands on the subject or make any kind of significant argument in favour or against.

What begins as a job to help get out of her small town life, transforms into a much more invasive presence in Mae’s life. At least, that’s how it feels at first. Mae is told, within her first week, that her social interactions at work are just as important as her work performance. She is encouraged to join in with communities and societies on campus, and socialise in the evenings at the Circle’s array of bars, events and concerts. Mae definitely seems taken aback slightly at the idea of spending all of her waking hours at the Circle’s campus, but after a months she seems to have settled into life there.

Though she is given a pretty severe warning by a new acquaintance Ty (John Boyega) about where the Circle is headed, Mae becomes a pseudo messiah for the company after two incidents. Firstly, her parents are given access to the company’s healthcare package, meaning that her father, who suffering from MS, is given the treatment he so badly needs. The second incident comes when Mae decides to steal a kayak and paddle out into the San Francisco Bay in the dead of night. Unable to see an approaching ship in all of the mist, Mae’s kayak is upturned and she is suddenly in danger for her life. The coast guard’s come to her rescue almost immediately, due to the Circle’s latest invention – a miniscule, versatile camera called ‘see-Change’. One such camera was mounted on a nearby buoy, capturing Mae’s accident.

After these two events, Mae decides that she will go entirely ‘transparent’, i.e. wear a ‘see-Change’ camera at all times, with a live broadcast online. Whether it is out of guilt, a feeling of debt to the company or an actual genuine belief in the technology – Mae doesn’t give her motivations away. This is one of the biggest flaws of The Circle. Mae goes from a naive yet curious worker bee at the Circle, rightly sceptical of the invasive nature of the company, to the face of the Circle cult where she shares a platform with CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). Her previous scepticism floats off into oblivion and is never considered again.

Even after Mae accidentally broadcasts her parents having sex to her entire audience, resulting in her becoming estranged from then, Mae continues as the face of transparency at the Circle. Later, Mae reveals some new technology to Circle employees (and the rest of the world via Mae’s feed) which aims to be able to track down anyone in a matter of minutes. When Mae’s childhood sweetheart Mercer is tracked down and accidentally killed, Mae still doesn’t revert back to her original distrust of the company.

In fact, Mae affirms that she needs to be online in order to receive the support she needs to grieve Mercer’s death. The film ends with Mae ousting Eamon Bailey for not being transparent enough, and demanding that everyone should be fully transparent. If Mae has had some epiphany about privacy and connection, it is never revealed the viewer. Rather, the film ends with a particularly bad taste in the mouth – if Mae is wrong, then why are we taught to identify with her perspective the entire way through the film?

There are several moments throughout The Circle that seem at odds with itself. Eamonn Bailey’s few mottos (“Secrets are Lies”, “Sharing is Caring”) are representative of a world where privacy is not a privilege anyone is afforded. Far from resonating with an audience, they remind us of Huxley, Atwood and Orwell – none of whom imagine futures that anyone wants to live in. Why does The Circle strongly allude to these dystopian futures when the film clearly doesn’t know if it believes them or not?

Maybe The Circle’s characters motives are so incoherent because of the dialogue. The majority of the dialogue is bland and says absolutely nothing about the characters or how they they really perceive the Circle. We are briefly introduced to Ty who makes some very ambiguous statements about how the Circle has gone too far, how he never intended it to be like this… blah blah. Ty’s original plan for the Circle is never revealed and it is never explained what he meant by that. He seems to be lamenting the loss of privacy, but at the end of the film he seems to be satisfied with Mae’s ideas about global transparency.

Mercer is also a fundamentally 2 dimensional character. He serves only as the antithesis to the connectivity the Circle is trying to achieve by living completely off the grid. Mercer’s defining characteristics are that he hates the internet and that he is Mae’s backwater town ex boyfriend – a symbol of everything she tries to get away from. We see so little of the two of them together that little feels lost when Mercer dies, rather it feels like it is supposed to be a wake up call for Mae – but she doesn’t wake up.

In short, The Circle suffers from a whole load of under-development in terms of it’s plot and characters, a confusing stance on the issue it’s trying to deal with and completely nonsensical actions by its protagonists. The Circle is basically everything you don’t really want a film to be, rounded of nicely with a helping of ‘if you don’t share your entire life, then you are a terrible person’. I’m not an internet hermit by any means, but honestly? Privacy is not a bad thing, and sharing isn’t always caring.

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