Film Corner: The Circle

The Circle

I haven't done an Amazon Prime movie in a long time and I think I need one to soothe me so here's something that promises to be awful but which I actually wanted to see at the time: THE CIRCLE. I think it's about Evil Off-Brand Facebook.

"Mae lands a dream job at a powerful tech company, only to uncover a nefarious agenda that will affect the lives of her friends, family and that of humanity." Whoops. It sounds a lot like ANTI-TRUST (2001) with Ryan Philippe and when I looked up his name he's apparently in this movie too, so that's a weird coincidence. [Editor's Note: I don't think he ever was in this movie that I saw, so that's confusing.]

We rapidly establish that Mae has a shitty job, a broken car, ill parents, and a neighborhood boy with a crush on her she doesn't really return. Dad needs medical help that their insurance won't cover. Ouch. Her best friend has gotten her an interview with The Circle, which is the best news ever but Mae has to ace the interview. The Circle is glowingly described as making the web simple by using your real name tied to a credit card. Ooh, ooh, I know why this is bad! Call on me, a trans person!

The interview is the usual hostile rapid fire Microsoft-esque bullshit and includes the interviewer asking Mae out to test if she calls it out as inappropriate. Ew ew ew. The elevator reads Mae's ID after she's hired and flings up pictures from her social media to say hello. Mae is impressed rather than horrified. The campus has every kind of recreational facility imaginable, and everyone is that creepy sort of enthusiastic We're All Family Here that screams abusive work environment.

Mae risks coming off as naive here for not being more alarmed, but on the other hand they characterized her as an impoverished small-town girl who doesn't really have the luxury of being picky, job-wise. Mae is working customer service, and each customer instantly rates you a 0-100 number, so it's like that one Black Mirror episode ("Nosedive") that was so stressful because it was like what social anxiety feels like. I look forward to her entire career crashing because of some douche who only gives "C" grades to customer service representatives because he wants them to "always aim higher" or whatever.

Wow, she got five whole minutes of training. They have to send "follow-ups" to any score under 100 to ask if they could've done better in some way. Fun. Mae confides in her friend that she's worried about her "87 average" but the friend says she's just getting the hang of things in her first week. Who the fuck is down-rating customer service people in this economy, I just want to talk.

Tom Hanks comes on and does a cutesy jokey harmless tech CEO guy, so I assume he'll be the villain. The audience playfully heckles him and adores him in equal measure and that's a hell of a red flag. He demonstrates a wireless satellite camera the size of a marble with a gorgeous HD picture. It's impossible to detect and you get "real time analytic processing" including SEARCHABLE FACE-RECOGNITION.

He plans to retail the camera for "less than the cost of a pair of jeans" and waxes philosophical about how these invisible undetectable cameras will remove human rights violations because "the entire world is watching". Oh my god. "We will hear and see everything. Tyrants can no longer hide." SCREAMING. We don't really get a lot of Mae's interiority (a weakness of the movie so far, I'd argue) but she doesn't seem alarmed by any of this? No one is going to discuss, for example, up-skirt pictures?

John Boyega is in this movie!?!? Ty (John) asks Mae what she thinks about all this and she confides that this is just a job to her and she hasn't started drinking the company lines, so to speak. Back home, Mae's parents brag about how she's working for the "best company on the planet" and makes money and has full dental. Mae begs them to stop with the local girl makes good talk around town. Local Puppy Love Interest pooh-poohs social media ("Isn't THIS socializing?") and asks about the senator who is trying to break The Circle up with anti-trust laws. Dad has unspecified health problems that continue to be expensive.

The commentary feels a little... I don't know. Too on the nose? The red flags are almost too crimson. (ANTI-TRUST was more subtle and had a slower burn, I swear, and that movie was far from subtle.) Mae gets a visit at work because she hasn't been updating her Facebook page, I mean CIRCLE page, often enough. "This is how your co-workers know who you are! Communication isn't extracurricular, right?" She's also dinged for her unexplained absence as "weekend and evening events--which are, of course, optional!" She's reassured that this isn't a "clock-in, clock-out type place" but she also needs to be here on the weekends doing yoga or something.

This is kind of what I mean by crimson red flags, like, the red flags could not be more red if you baked them in a red velvet cake and served them at the red wedding from Game of Thrones. While, um, wearing red. She mentions that she was at home tending to her father. They already know her dad's diagnosis and scold her for not joining an MS support group at The Circle. They're also upset that her kayaking isn't on her social media profile. MY GOD. They connect her into the company twitter (basically) where there are 8,000 messages to catch up on (*screams*) and there's a Nosedive-esque score here, too: the "participation rank" which totally isn't a popularity score but actually is.

Mae integrates into the social community and feels bad that she wasn't home a month later when Dad fell down and Puppy Love had to come by to help. "I should've been there." Best Friend takes Mae to the company doctor (*screams*) who claps a skin-touching "media band" on her arm that she never needs to take off, after having her ingest a sensor without warning her. It monitors all her body vitals, ALL THE TIME. FOREVER.

I think the movie kind of fucked up by setting this essentially in "right now, today" and not a more sci-fi setting, because this would start to feel invasive to most of us, but in a more sci-fi setting we could assume Mae is more used to this sort of thing. Or maybe I've just been fat and disabled for too long and I'm not a thin healthy young person who trusts the company won't profoundly misuse this data, idk idk. The company has all your data all the time, including your sleep patterns. Not terrifying at all, lol. Best Friend wants to get Mae's parents on the company health plan, which is a big fucking deal and Mae is sobbing with happiness.

A company meeting stresses openness and drops the fact that the senator who was investigating them is now being investigated by the FBI. That's not threatening at all. I really...don't love the casting in this movie? Nearly everyone Mae has interacted with at The Circle has been a person of color, while Mae is white. White woman protagonist and a bunch of POC people determined to intrude on her privacy at all times. I find it almost breathtakingly unlikely that so many people of color wouldn't have serious concerns about all this personal intrusion. This "openness everywhere! no walls, no boundaries!!!" feels like a white-tech-guy thing. I would believe in a heartbeat that a white cis guy doctor would trick me into swallowing a sensor without my consent. A woman of color with experience knowing how racist the medical industry is? Press X to doubt.

Anyway, The Circle brings on a Congresswoman to pledge that her every phone call and email will now be public domain and accessible to everyone and uhhh I don't think... you can... pledge that, ma'am. I guess she's not getting any national security briefings any time soon, or I suppose she could just be lying. "In real time! It will all be on my TrueYou (Facebook) page!" Everyone claps. Why is this a company meeting? At the after-party, Mae talks to a member of the "ChildTrack" program which chips children in their bones so they can be located "within 90 seconds" as a predator deterrent. Mae finally shows a glimmer of horror.

Mae notices Ty again and catches up with him. I'm assuming he's, like, a cynical VP? Please let him be a whistle-blower or something? Please. He and Mae express misgivings about the congresswoman's announcement. Ty wants to take her to show the server storage, but he has to take off her medical bracelet and smart badge. "This holds Congresswoman Santos. Every second of her, from now on." Ty warns her that Santos is "just the start" and that "every step, every breath" is going to be stored, studied, and monitored forever. "This isn't why I invented TrueYou." Penny drop. He's been "off the grid" for years because he wanted to live a normal life. I...can't tell if that means he works here or if he's hiding in plain sight. He says he knew he could trust Mae because she's so pure and uncynical.

Back at work, Puppy Love visits Mae and is upset because she posted one of his deer-antler chandeliers on her TrueYou page. "They're calling me a deer-killer and there's a campaign to shut me down." Oh god. Puppy Love insists that he doesn't kill deer (he ethically harvests the antlers, I guess; I'm informed the antlers are shed annually) but of course that doesn't matter to the Online SJWs. Ah, yes, it takes a white man to realize that online privacy is important. Of course.

How did this movie get everything so backwards? It should've been privileged white men who wanted no privacy for anyone and a marginalized woman of color being harassed for literally anything. Talking about tropes in video games, for example. Like, Puppy Love is mad about the death threats he's receiving and I'm over here wondering how he's making a living with his Antler Art without having a webpage, an Etsy, and a full "About Me" page re: how he's repurposing roadkill and seasonally shed antlers. Does this small rural community really buy enough Antler Art locally to support Puppy Love as an artist? He's not online at all???

Puppy Love tells her she never leaves work and she isn't real anymore because she's "filtered" through a phone camera at all times and, like, Mae has to eat my dude? We can't all corner the lucrative Antler Art market? Distressed, Mae breaks into the kayak rental place at night and goes on a dangerous nighttime kayaking. The music gets really upset, but the screen is pitch-black so I have no idea what happens. She crashes into a boat?

A miraculous helicopter saves her and she's told that a Circle camera saved her life because a seal-watcher saw her live-feed of kayak stealing. She's called in to talk to CEO Tom Hanks, who is concerned (TM). He's not mad and says this was great PR for the Circle cameras because it saved her life, etc. Tom Hanks believes that the whole world can be made amazing, just as long as all secrets are eradicated. He's basically an SJW Cultist, okay?

Tom takes Mae on stage in front of the company. Best Friend watches from the audience and looks stricken. Mae talks about how she "behaves better when she's being watched" (Tom Hanks' words). Best Friend looks horrified by all this. She was super pro-company before, so I'm assuming that she's upset about being eclipsed by her friend rather than upset that her friend is joining a cult?

Mae explains that secrets are lies and that when no one is watching it's easier to behave badly, commit crimes, so forth. Tom asks her about- oh fuck. No. No. No. Okay. Okay. Tom asks her about the pretty moonlight kayaking and regrets that there's "no record" of it outside Mae's memory. He mentions his son who has cerebral palsy, so we're going to give the villain a Disability Motivation. Hoo-fucking-ray.

Tom describes his son as "confined to a wheelchair" and if he wants to experience kayaking he has to watch video. Why the fuck do they always have to drag us into this shit as motivations? CEO Tom, you're the richest fucker on earth and you can't give your son cool experiences because he's a wheelchair user? You can invent a tiny wireless HD camera but not cool mobility devices? Fuck?? You???? Tom tells Mae that, by failing to record her night kayaking, she "deprived" his son and others like him of that experience. I want to throw this movie through a window.

"When you deprive others of experiences like the one I had, you're essentially stealing from them. Knowledge is a basic human right." Oh my god. This is just bullshit deep fried in ableism and wrapped in a social justice flag. Mae announces that from now on she'll be wearing a Circle camera "at all times" so... she's going to become one of those 24/7 cam girl channels? Those are legit things that exist! But Mae isn't monetizing hers, it's just a social media access thing, apparently.

Tom crows that Mae is the first Circle employee to share every single second of her work with the public. She works with customer accounts! She's- You have to take her off of customer service, you can't STREAM a customer's account number, for fuck's sake! Annoyingly, I can't tell if Mae is seriously on board with this or if she's agreeing because she's too afraid to say no. This movie needed more interiority from Mae's perspective.

She wakes up and we see her from the cameras' (plural) perspectives in bed. So... yeah. She's a 24/7 cam girl channel. That's- do you think they knew that exists? I learned about those in media classes in college in the early 2000s. I don't remember the girl's name that we learned about, I just remember her reading Hamlet on the toilet and thinking that being accessible 24/7 would be such an emotional toll on me as an introvert autistic. I wish I remembered her name.

@citizen_of_now. which is another reason I really disliked this film. Jennicam began in the year of our lord nineteen ninety six. So how can The Circle come along in 2017AD and act like this was some revolutionary idea? The whole thing's just so tired

JenniCam! Thank you, @/citizen_of_now! Mae has millions of viewers in her third week of "transparency" and the comments on her feed are, like, "she's so cute" and yeah this is... a very wholesome view of the internet. Sigh. I'm going to assume that Tom Hanks has people curating the comments at all times. Then again, knowledge is a human right so it would be wrong to permaban the spam bots posting links to malware sites, RIGHT? Wouldn't want to rob people of that experience.

Mae's work friends are weirdly okay with being live-streamed at all times when around her. Mae comes home and checks in on her parents' house feed and sees her parents having sex so that... that happened. While brushing her teeth Mae has a bit of a moment realizing that this is maybe not healthy for herself or for her viewers. I will say that the thing where the comments float around Mae's head is a neat filming technique.

Mae talks about a statue made by an artist persecuted in an oppressive country and brags that the US has "sent more than 180 million frowns" on social media and "you can bet that's gonna have an effect on the regime". I- Okay, this is- This is satire of social justice work, right? There's no way this is some kind of stealth outreach to tech bro dudes who don't respect privacy, because this is just mocking twitter activism right now. Like, "lol, u think they care u sent 180 million frowns" when online activism is about education, organizing, contacting, protesting, and not just tweeting a frowny-face at your senator.

Mae runs after Best Friend, who pretends not to hear her and doesn't look as nicely put together as usual. They meet in a bathroom stall for privacy. "I have three minutes to use the bathroom without the video on." Best Friend is practically sobbing at Mae's meteoric rise. Is this really just catty female jealousy? Or is The Circle hurting her? Looks like a little bit of both. Best Friend isn't sleeping and is being abused by management for "questioning the Senator Williamson thing" which I assume is a reference to a frame-job that Mae doesn't pick up on.

Best Friend is astonished that Mae has been asked by Tom Hanks to attend a high-level meeting tomorrow and broadcast it, because "those meetings are sensitive!" She warns that Mae is in over her head and heads out, emotionally distressed. Back at work, CEO Tom Hanks has metrics on how many Circlers aren't registered to vote and how they want to get that participation up. "What if your Circle profile automatically registered you to vote?" He's pushing legislation to make opening a Circle account an automatic voter registration.

Mae suggests taking it a step further and letting people vote from their social media Circle page, then suggests *requiring* every voter to use The Circle. "We have to do all sorts of things, right? We have to pay social security, we have to serve on juries." So therefore it's just a small leap to force people to register for a Circle account if they want to vote. Why... is Mae suggesting this? It doesn't make sense. She literally says that "100% voter participation" in an election is the goal, then immediately throws up something (forced Circle registration) that will NOT aid that goal and will inherently prevent it (some people will choose not to vote rather than sign up).

This is what I mean when I say we lack interiority on Mae: I have NO IDEA why she's suggesting this suggestion. She seems to have made the suggestion because the plot wants it, and because it's sinister? It doesn't flow from her personality. Despite working for The Circle, she hasn't been its biggest fan girl. She streams herself 24/7, but that was about an idealistic goal of "sharing everything" with disabled people (gag) and so it doesn't drive this sudden voting left turn. It's weird and jarring.

Mae proposes making a unified system that lets you pay taxes and vote and pay their parking fees-- she's-- she's proposing that the Circle be nationalized and seized by the government, she just doesn't realize it. "The government needs us more than we need them." "Imagine having the full will of the people instantly--you'd have true democracy for the first time in history." The Online SJWs are THRILLED by this idea, because this was written in bizarro land. "No more rigged elections!" Yes, because no one could rig an online vote! "Think of the implication for totalitarian regimes!" The... the ones that allow voting? Those regimes? I don't... what. Everyone is so thrilled by this plan I'm about to cry, lol. No one has a single concern about security.

Mae phones home and her parents tell her that privacy is important and that she needs to understand that. At work, "22 nations" have already agreed to implement MANDATORY VOTING through the Circle. WHY. Does CEO Tom have mind control powers? Why would *any* nation agree to hand over the keys of governance to a tech company which has no oversight whatsoever? This is big news that 22 nations have basically dissolved themselves without a shot fired. Like, this is some LEFT BEHIND bullshit that Fred Clark has been picking apart for years.

Moving at breakneck speed, Mae is introducing "Soul Search" to deal with people who don't want to join The Circle. The computer is going to select, at random, "a fugitive from justice". Soul Search promises to locate the person in 20 minutes. They spin the wheel. Sadly, Hannibal Lecter does not come up. Damn. Everyone online (2 billion people?) agree to snapchat everyone in their surroundings and upload to the Circle until "fugitive Fiona" is identified by the computer. Fiona is found folding towels in her day job as a fugitive minding her own business and she's captured on live-stream. And this is the demo for a product meant to force people to join The Circle even if they don't want to.

"When everyone can be found, we can never lose a friend." The audience demands that Mae "find Mercer", her Puppy Love who doesn't want to be online. Tom insists that they "unite Mae and Mercer". Trespassers live-stream their invasion of Mercer's home and he flees. A high speed pursuit, complete with drone, occurs. The drone forces him to collide with another car at high speed on a bridge and I assume he dies.

Mae wakes up in her parents' house, having refused to eat for three days. She receives an email from CEO Tom asking her to come in. Sorrowful, she calls Best Friend instead. Best Friend is looking worlds better; she's gone home to Scotland and stopped social mediaing and also quit "speed and Soylent". Mae starts feeling like maybe The Circle isn't always 100% good, though she's still not totally sure.

There is 19 minutes left in this movie, I'm- "When someone dies in a plane crash, you don't abandon planes. You make them safer." What is the point of this movie?? It wants to make a point, but it doesn't know what that point is.

John Boyega is so criminally misused in this film. He just stands in the background and watches sadly. He's had maybe 20 lines. He's going to help Mae magically fix everything now, for Reasons. I guess. Oh, okay, so Ty is on the payroll and the media writing articles about the "missing founder" just didn't think to look at the place where he works. Ty has apparently dug up bad information ("worse than you could imagine") and Mae is going to go online and read it to the world. The writing is so bad here and I just... Boyega deserved better.

CEO Tom is using Mercer's death to try to create self-driving cars that drive where Facebook- The Circle, sorry, wants you to go. You know, it's a rare movie where with 10 minutes left to go I genuinely don't know whether the villain knows he's a villain or not. Is CEO Tom a true believer of his cult bullshit? I have no idea. "We lost track of Mercer, but what if we never lose track of each other. I'm proposing radical openness. We want everything in the cloud, and yet our leaders live above it." She's banking on CEO Tom not being a true believer.

"Ty has helped us make every email from Tom and Eamon's accounts public." CEO Tom looks delighted, like totally tickled. "We are so fucked," he murmurs happily. "Privacy was a temporary thing, and now it's over." The non-Tom villain runs off stage and turns off the lights but every member of the audience turns on their phone screen to illuminate the stage. Jesus, what a terrible metaphor. So that's the moral: privacy is bad and secrets are lies and the only reason the villain was the villain is because he was a hypocrite and not a true believer. Cool, cool.

Mae goes kayaking while drones stream her every sniffle and nose-pick. (Not that Emma Watson ever picks her nose, probably.) The camera pans out and EVERY PERSON ON EARTH is being streamed by a drone. Wow, that was unrelentingly bad. I'm actually sorta disappointed. I mean, I pick bad Amazon Prime movies on purpose, but that was supposed to be a good movie that I just sorta didn't get to watch in theaters. Ah well.


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