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Question Club: What’s wrong with The Circle?

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Secrets are lies

Image: STX Entertainment

Hi, everybody! Welcome to The Circle Question Club, where secrets are lies and knowing is good but knowing everything is better! The Circle — a thriller about a Google-like tech company with a sinister agenda, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson — has gotten largely bad reviews from critics, including our own Tasha Robinson. Still, there’s a lot to say about the film’s portrayal of the tech industry and how it handles its source material, Dave Eggers’ 2013 novel of the same name. Given the prominent role of wearable tech, we’ve also invited Racked entertainment editor Elana Fishman to our roundtable.

Why are there no internet trolls in the future? Does The Circle’s pervasive wearable surveillance technology make sense? What was going on with the ending? Zing me some smiles, folks.

Warning: Heavy spoilers for The Circle — book and movie — ahead.

First of all, let’s answer one really simple question: would you tell someone to watch The Circle?

Adi Robertson: This was not an objectively good movie, but The Circle tapped into my guilty love of absurd, simplistic dystopias. I read the book a few years back and found Eggers’ prose (and a few other elements) insufferable, but I could listen to Tom Hanks give avuncular villain speeches all day. It’s like somebody made Divergent in the world of Silicon Valley, and instead of only getting one personality trait, you get to pick between being a social media cultist or a hipster Luddite. Besides, enjoying The Circle as trashy fun almost seems like a sicker burn than panning it.

Tasha Robinson: I think my review of the film isn’t “telling people to watch The Circle” so much as “warning people that having a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 explode in their back pocket is significantly more fun than The Circle.” Guilty pleasures are hard to recommend, because everyone’s tolerances are different. But it’s easy to warn people away from a poorly thought-through, halfhearted mess of a film.

Elana Fishman: I’m with Adi on this one: I fully acknowledge the fact that The Circle is not a good movie, but I enjoyed watching it in the same way I enjoyed watching, say, Passengers or The Island. I thought the movie looked great, and that Emma Watson and Tom Hanks both gave decently strong performances. Particularly for fans of the book, like myself, I’d say sure, go ahead and watch it — but preferably at home or on an airplane.

Does the movie’s commentary on social media and privacy ring true?

Adi: There's one very funny scene satirizing the modern "you've got to spend your entire life here, but it's fun!" workplace mindset. But The Circle's implicit reduction of humanity to sinister techies, credulous progressive sheeple, and off-the-grid objectors seems so insufficient. At the very least, a movie about privacy needs to acknowledge things like doxxing and the anti-government surveillance movement in Silicon Valley, if only to dismiss them.

You could argue that The Circle is carefully addressing one sliver of web and startup culture. But that's the problem with simplistic, overreaching dystopias. The Circle blocks out everything except gamified social media oversharing, then says people have been consumed by gamified social media oversharing. It's like writing a scathing rebuke of how Americans live on alcohol, because you went to a restaurant and only read the wine menu.

Elana: Adi, that scene where Mae gets called out for her lack of participation in “totally optional” extracurriculars was great. And I’ll say this much: as someone who loves social media and uses Facebook Live often (albeit in a professional capacity only), certain parts of The Circle hit eerily close to home. Particularly those about work / life balance and the struggle to excel at your job while also creating engaging #content at every opportunity. Also, the viewer comments that popped up as Mae went about her day were hilarious.

But because the movie is such a stripped-down version of Eggers’ book — and is clearly trying to be Black Mirror with mass-audience appeal — everything it tries to say about surveillance and accountability comes off as cartoonish. Don’t even get me started on that SoulSearch sequence toward the end.

Image: STX Entertainment

What did you think of the performances?

Tasha: Am I the only one who thought Emma Watson was a near-complete blank here? I can’t decide whether that’s deliberate, since the story (in both book and film) requires her to be impressionable, biddable, and easily manipulated to the point where she barely has a personality. But deliberate or not, it’s so tedious. This is theoretically a movie about the subversion of democracy, the eradication of personal privacy, and a quiet global takeover. But Watson’s tiny, indrawn performance is more like “shy 20-something can’t decide whether she really feels Instagram-worthy today.”

Adi: She was, but I preferred her blankness to the book’s smug “I’m portraying a vapid millennial lady!” tone, since very little of what she does makes sense in either iteration. As I touched on above, though, Tom Hanks’ performance is the best thing the movie has going for it. I’m not sure anybody could sell “secrets are lies” as a friendly startup slogan, but he has enough charisma that I could buy him telling dad jokes while announcing our impending totalitarian nightmare world.

Elana: Most of my issues with The Circle stem from the movie’s narrative, not the cast. I think that Emma gave a fine performance considering the material she was given — and yes, her blankness actually worked to her advantage here, making her believable as a corporate pushover. I definitely found her character less insufferable in the movie than I did in the book (although granted, a lot changed for this adaptation). And I have a hard time believing anyone could’ve made Eamon Bailey more convincing than Tom Hanks. I couldn’t stand Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, although that might be because he had to say stuff like “We used to go on adventures and have fun and see things, and you were brave and exciting.”

Adi: Mercer is the worst. In a smarter, more cutting satire he would be the intentionally awful inverse of the Circle, because he just comes off as shallow and self-righteous. Unfortunately, this was not that film.

Did you find the movie’s wearable technology realistic? Cool? Completely antiquated already?

Elana: Going into the movie, I was really excited to see how the wearable SeeChange cameras would look. In the book, everyone wears them around their necks, like lanyards, which already feels sort of dumb and dated in the age of Snapchat Spectacles. I liked how the cameras were worn like brooches in the movie, and the fact that they were super low-profile, like sleek little silver rivets. Way more stylish than your standard GoPro. I do have a tough time believing that those tiny cameras could capture the sweeping panoramic footage the movie wants us to believe they can, though. And don’t they need to be charged at some point?

I was less impressed by the look of those silver health-tracker bracelets every Circler gets when they join the company: that technology already exists, and it’s a whole lot sleeker and chicer than the bracelets in the movie, which to me just looked like last-generation Fitbits. I guess a lot of the appeal lies in the fact that they’re free for all employees of the Circle, but I’d rather just wear an Apple Watch.

Adi: Beyond the Fitbits, life streaming has been a thing since the ‘90s, and life logging wearable cameras like the Narrative Clip got a moment in the early ‘10s. It’s one of the movie’s many (I think unintentional) ambiguities. If this is the near future, why is everyone so excited about all this stuff? Is it an alternate present where this tech seems more futuristic, as it would have in 2013?

Image: STX Entertainment

The film mostly cuts Mae’s romantic relationships, including her fling with Ty and a boring Circler boyfriend. Was this a good call?

Tasha: Absolutely. Mae’s romantic mooning over Ty (who initially tells her his name is “Kalden,” so no wonder she doesn’t figure out his identity) is one of the least interesting parts of the book. It’s unclear what she sees in him — I mean, with John Boyega on the screen, the attraction is much more understandable, but in the book, he’s a sort of vague ideal that she maps her obsessions onto. The book gives her the romantic range of a badly drawn, angsty YA heroine. She doesn’t understand or own her own sexuality, she isn’t confident enough to tell her boring boyfriend that he’s awful in bed, and her love life basically consists of unsatisfying hook-ups and mooning. That may sound relatable, but it’s also pretty dull and predictable.

Adi: The book also seemed to blame the “awful in bed” thing on the Circle’s obsession with good ratings, which was one of its least coherent critiques, since women stroking men’s egos is not exactly a sinister Google invention. Without the fig leaf of sexual attraction, though, it’s even less clear what’s drawing Ty and Mae together. They have some “witty” banter and then Ty decides to share his super-secret plan for rebellion with her. Is everyone just so brainwashed that mildly mocking a company party is a significant act of resistance?

Elana: Definitely. The book’s sex scenes were totally gratuitous, and I never understood why an eager employee knowing she’s constantly being watched would start hooking up with a co-worker all over campus. On the other hand, the lack of a relationship between the two made it hard to believe that Mae would help Ty bring down the Circle’s co-founders — or that Ty would confide in her in the first place. Basically, the movie treated Ty as a complete afterthought, which sucks because John Boyega could’ve brought a lot to that character.

What about the other major changes from the book? Did they help or hurt?

Tasha: The one thing I thought the film did better than the book besides dropping the romance angles was in handling Mae’s response to Mercer’s death. In the book, her willingness to blame the whole thing on him felt like the stuff of fairy tales and myth, not a believable human response — especially from someone who’s already been established as being so controlled by her emotions.

That said, the film version is so stripped down. Losing the whole Congressional movement toward transparency, for instance, means losing any sense that the Circle really could eradicate privacy. The Circle is openly modeled on George Orwell’s 1984, but the film version feels like 1984 would if Winston never actually left his apartment, and Julia was just a fantasy he muttered about sometimes. The screen adaptation is weightless and insular, just a bunch of tech people talking about the fantasies they have about world domination.

Adi: The book still felt insular to me, but it does at least posit an explanation — albeit a bad one — for why everyone on social media is so improbably decent, which is that having to use your real name eliminated trolls. The film gives us the same squeaky-clean internet without any context, and then it throws in an incongruous Jon Ronson internet shame mob against Mercer, complete with, as he puts it, “Death threats, Mae!!!” Who is even sending these? Every human on earth just wants to give people smiles and work for the Circle!

What was going on with the ending? It’s very different from the book, and a couple of us literally believed different things were happening.

Adi: I thought (or at least hoped) the ending was a classic “manipulated pawn grows beyond its creator’s control” twist, instead of the book’s reflexive and easy “Mae betrays Ty and becomes a completely obedient Circler” conclusion. Here, she works with Ty to expose the Circle leadership’s secrets, but then he disappears, and she keeps talking about how great radical transparency is — before we cut to her in a kayak surrounded by drones. I interpreted this as Mae becoming the true zealot the Circle’s leaders pretended to be, turning on both the rebel and the establishment to lead the Circle toward a post-privacy world. So the last shot is an ironic faux-utopia where she’s chilling out in Evil Google Year Zero.

Tasha: We definitely interpreted that ending differently. Given that Ty set up the hack that revealed the Circle’s overlords were up to… something… completely undefined and abstract… I don’t think she was turning on him in the end, I think she was carrying out their mutual plan. The fact that he disappears after that doesn’t seem sinister. It’s just part of the way the film shelves characters whenever they aren’t doing something directly related to Mae. The film isn’t interested in him as anything other than a warning device and a god-hacker that enables the final move against the Circle. Why would it care where he ends up afterward?

What I can’t parse is that final shot, where we see Mae with a neutral expression, looking up at the drones that have joined her on her kayaking trip. Is this a happy ending where she’s come to terms with technology and lack of privacy, as long as the evil overlords aren’t behind it? Or a tragic one where we realize that cutting one head off the hydra didn’t kill it? It feels like a horror movie gotcha, one of those lazily cruel moments where the protagonist dies even though they thought they broke the curse, banished the monster, fulfilled the contract, whatever. But it also could be a tech-utopia happily ever after. Like so much of the film, it feels enigmatic, not in a clever, mysterious way, but in a “we didn’t think through what we put on-screen” way.

Elana: The book’s ending wasn’t without its problems — trying to extricate the inner thoughts of your comatose BFF, what?! — but the movie’s was worse, because it just could not commit. For some reason, it had to make Mae a character worth rooting for by having her rise up against the bad guys in the end (would all those Circlers really turn on Bailey that fast?), but also couldn’t tear her away from her precious technology. That final shot of Mae surrounded by drones is effective and creepy, but it completely conflicts with what happened in the auditorium a moment earlier. I really wanted Mae to turn on Ty and continue to be the Circle’s shining example of total subservience, like she does in the book.

Adi: And to add insult to injury, we didn’t even get to see a transparent shark symbolizing Patton Oswalt eat an octopus symbolizing Tom Hanks and a seahorse symbolizing John Boyega. That would have been worth the price of admission right there.