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The Circle

Time for another fun game of “How Did This Go Wrong?”

Tonight’s subject is The Circle, clocking in with a Tomatometer of 15 percent. How could this be? It’s a movie about interconnectivity and privacy in the Internet Age, a very timely subject that lends itself to all manner of intellectual discourse. Moreover, it’s a film directed and co-written by James Ponsoldt; starring such a wide array of proven talents as Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Patton Oswalt, John Boyega, Karen Gillan, Nate Corddry, Ellar Coltrane, Bill Paxton (RIP), and probably a few others I’m forgetting.

But here’s the thing: It’s easy to have too much faith in star power. And I’m not just talking about the assumption that a movie will be good because it was made by reliable talents. I’m talking about the implicit assumption that good filmmakers know what they’re talking about.

This is an especially huge problem with regard to movies and television about computers and the Internet. This is the 21st century, when use of the Internet is so widespread you’d think that everyone on the planet would have some basic knowledge of what it is and how it works. But time after time, we get movies like Tron: Legacy and Nerve, clearly put together with no knowledge of computers or computer culture. Granted, there are many cases in which excessive creative liberties are taken — for all the effort blackhat allegedly put into its authenticity, the filmmakers still cast Chris freaking Hemsworth to play a hacker.

Hell, The Social Network is probably the most high-profile movie about the Internet and social media in recent memory, yet Facebook itself actually doesn’t factor very heavily into the movie. There’s really nothing in that movie about the mechanics or ethical implications of social media. On a purely narrative level, the film could’ve just as easily been about Google, Amazon, YouTube, or any other massively popular online enterprise. (Yes, I know it was based on the true story of Facebook’s founding, but work with me here.)

The Circle, alas, is another movie put together with basically no knowledge of computers and social media, except that they exist. It’s a movie that raises the question of personal privacy in an age where media and information can be freely shared and accessed at the push of a button. The problem is that it presents the issue like this is the very first time anyone’s ever dared talk about it.

It’s astounding how the characters talk about our personal information being collected and monetized, with no further detail given. News flash to the filmmakers: We know how Google and Facebook make their money. Say something new about it, or comment on why it’s so awful that they’re doing this. Is it supposed to be self-evident why this is such a bad thing? Well, then why should we waste two hours on a movie about something we already know?

Again, there are a lot of serious issues to talk about with regard to computers and computer culture. At every level, you’ll find inhumane working hours, rampant sexism, gentrification run amok, the environmental impact and human rights violations involved with mining precious metals, etc. Yet these issues are only barely addressed if at all, or discussed in the most tin-eared way possible. The perfect example being Ellar Coltrane’s character, who’s subjected to harassment and death threats through online media.

To repeat: We have Ellar Coltrane — a twenty-something decently attractive white cis-gendered male — opposite Emma Watson — a gorgeous young woman working in the male-dominated tech industry. And it’s the former character who gets all the harassment and death threats, to which the latter character is wholly immune. That right there is some outrageously insensitive out-of-touch bullshit, and Emma freaking Watson herself should know that better than anyone!

As the film continues, the filmmakers keep going further and further up their own asses, coming up with nightmare scenarios that get increasingly less plausible. With each passing minute of runtime, the plot and the characters lose nuance, every scene dumber and every innovation more outlandish than the one before. In short order, it gets to a point where the plot is so predictable and the proceedings are so brainless that it’s impossible to take any of this seriously and there’s no intelligent discourse to be found.

Yet for all of this, the film’s true shark-jumping moment at the halfway point has nothing to do with computers or the social media. It happens when Watson’s character steals a kayak and goes for a boating excursion in the dead of night, through pea-soup fog, without a life jacket, without telling anyone, and for absolutely no reason at all. It’s a stone-stupid move, completely unjustified and out of character, done for no other reason than because the plot said so. It’s so flagrant and awful that there’s simply no coming back from it.

(Side note: As a personal pet peeve, Watson’s character is first introduced as a temp in accounting, on the phone with someone who sent a $78.13 check for a $78.31 bill. I get that this is meant to show the mundane drudgery of the character’s life before she comes to work for The Circle, but I work in Accounts Receivable for a living — that one phone call cost more in time, labor, and customer satisfaction than the $0.18 balance was worth, and any halfway responsible company would have written that off without a thought.)

Even so, I have to give props to the cast. Every single actor is perfectly fitted to their respective role, and they all turn in fine work with what they were given. I was also fond of the score, and the recurring use of “Simple Gifts” was a brilliant touch.

The main problem, I think, is James Ponsoldt. He’s a brilliant director, don’t get me wrong — this is the guy behind The Spectacular Now, Smashed, and The End of the Tour, all of which are legitimately good movies that deserved all their many critical accolades. But those are all films that dealt with more personal and introspective issues: Alcoholism, sex, coming of age, family, personal responsibility, the creative process, and so on. And when this particular movie focuses on those more intimate concepts, it does work quite well. Unfortunately, it seems that internet privacy and social media are topics too broad for Ponsoldt’s skill set. He’s apparently a director more capable with emotional matters than intellectual ones. Thus the film adequately conveys disgust with The Circle’s actions toward a more transparent world, but fails to explain precisely why that disgust is justified. And that’s simply not good enough.

We need a movie that gives intelligent and thoughtful discussion with regards to our increasingly online world, and The Circle is not that movie. Though it looks great and it’s superbly acted, the presentation is tone-deaf at best and outright insensitive at worst. The subject is examined in the most shallow possible way, with a boring and predictable plot that never fails to take the easiest possible option. And for all of that, the film offers no coherent thesis or meaningful resolution.

Absolutely not recommended.

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