Elizabeth Lopez is VP of Literary Development at Marilyn Atlas Management and is the co-author of “Dating Your Character: A Sexy Guide to Screenwriting” from Stairway Press.
Though The Circle is a provocative piece, with the requisite star power of Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, it doesn’t warrant more than the tepid audience reaction it’s received. The film, based on Dave Eggers’ novel, was designed to be more than a mildly biting look at the co-opting of our lives’ social media entertainment value.
Now standard for digital incubators, the company at the center of The Circle provides the kind of lifestyle swag for its ambitious yuckies—young urban creatives—to make life in its hyper-connected cocoon feel like a mere way station to greater wealth and stock options, which is hardly a novel on-screen environment. But, what’s given prominence, in what is ultimately a thriller premise, is the movie’s smug assumption at having sated the audience by letting them imagine themselves living in The Circle’s high-tech glitzy campus. And the social commentary that slowly creeps up, after so much screen time spent reveling in these perks, feels more like buzz-kill.
Presumably, this is one of the reasons the film is unlikely to resonate with younger, tech- savvy viewers. That the protagonist (Watson), though increasingly leery, sees her future as inextricably intertwined with the health of the company is a standard gamble that young employees feel pressured to make today. Mae’s previous life was a downer and it was only natural that she’d joyfully flee her gig as a telephone solicitor becomimg more deeply absorbed in the Google-esque playground of her new job. And, we can see why. She gets free shuttle service from the office park to her suburb; comprehensive health and dental; a dorm room, should she choose to live and play there.
More damning, in an effort to get ahead, she goes down the rabbit-hole of corporate cultural conformity. But, for most of the film she does this without much self-examination. When her dad is gifted an expensive medical regimen for his MS—if he agrees to allow the company to monitor his live biometric feed—she urges him to accept. She thinks it’s a fantastic idea, even though they’ll be broadcasting how he responds to the treatment with no guarantee he will in fact improve.
Another “perk”—futuristic 24/7 city-camera surveillance with real-time linking to globally disseminate any citizen’s every conscious moment on digital billboards and corporate screens everywhere—is eerie. But, with this digital blanketing a wider dispersal of technology that already exists, presumably many under-25s simply see this as a self-branding upgrade.
So if this segment, a large demographic of the movie-going audience, isn’t particularly interested in poking holes into the professed ethical code of The Circle’s economic identity, that’s a problem. The reason the movie has seen viewers and word-of-mouth turn against it, is because if you’re not inclined to lampoon the world’s Insta-appetites, then after its envy-inducing beginning, the rest plays like a drawn-out, unnecessary PSA for a society we already know is here.
That the film’s critical fault is its tonal dissonance is a symptom of the script’s vacillation. It’s as if it’s trying to hedge its bets and appear more sophisticated than it is by comparing itself to the seeming guilelessness of its heroine. Its weakly accented, pointed satire is warring for dominance over the consumerist fantasia. Eventually, The Circle churlishly mocks Mae for believing she can reach her full potential and bloom within the company’s alternatingly cozy and competitive environment.
While her cushy accommodations are certainly covetable, the none-too-subtle undertone now begins blinking BRAINWASHED to us with an emergency-exit ferocity. It’s the fear-mongering’s tagged-on effect that strains the movie’s oppositional genre ambitions of voyeuristic, feminist coming-of-age drama and apocalyptic techno-thriller. And, Millennials have pounced gleefully on this with their social media quips:
@MrTyCollins The dialogue and inventions are just familiar enough to be dorky
@DeepFocusReview A world-upside-down episode of Black Mirror, except less edgy
@Blindreviews Cast: Apple Story: Segway Script: Zune Direction: Google Glass Denouement: Galaxy Note 7 Overall: Vista
After all, convinced of their self-awareness, because they chuckle at these tech excesses, why rain down criticism on such a vibrant workspace? When life is so sweet, why tug on any disquieting thread? Plenty of corporate lip service from The Circle is paid conscientiously to forward-thinking social goals, so isn’t that progress? Aren’t conspiracies and hidden agendas just the click-bait of hysteric reactionaries?
SOME SOCIAL COMMENTARY YOU CAN SKIP, IF YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO A CRITIQUE OF THE FILM…
Perhaps, this is because this generation wasn’t as financially exposed in the housing crash of 2008. Unlike Gen X, they’ve never seen mobile digital communication as anything but an obvious extension of themselves. Generation Y has never had to expressly bridge the barrier from the personal to the public. So, this group doesn’t share the healthy suspicions of the latest trends and over-valuated apps that other generations do.
Most privacy vs. transparency debates about the cultish aura of Apple, the news-setting agenda of Facebook, and the urban/rural digital divide come from older legal scholars and activists. There hasn’t been much of an outcry bursting forth from young adults, though they’re happy enough to sign and re-tweet a Credo petition.
When sufficiently energized, what they most prefer to rally around are issues of perceived tribal, ethno-specific, or gender oppression, as in the temporarily triumphant protest at the North Dakota pipeline. They look to remedy the past, rather than face the future as if it, too, is a thing that may need correction.
For evidence of groundswell engagement situated at the ideological crossroads of tech futurism and democracy, we have the one-man insurgencies of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. And, it could be argued there’s a sullen, totalitarian aspect to their followers’ revolutionary fervor; the inability to compromise, the impatience for immediate change… as demonstrated in Bernie Sanders’ inability to leverage the feckless fringe of his base to back the campaign of the only other viable candidate, Hillary Clinton, despite the clear danger of a Trump presidency.
Setting aside the merits of the 2016 spoiler politicians’ campaigns, there seems to have been a knee-jerk, bipolar element with which young people, weaned on hope and raised on a diet of optimism, were quick to back away from the righteous embrace of their causes once their first choice had been spurned.
Perhaps the rapid cycle of click, like, and comment simply creates a pervasive environment that discourages the thoughtful press of the pause button. Why idle in introspection or meditate on the effect of your actions—if there’s someone whose rants you can instantly agree/disagree with, tag, and re-tweet. If the quality of an opinion piece or the recognized source of breaking news isn’t as important as its timeliness, then nuance, subtlety, and individual reflection are rendered completely tangential in the need to “add” to the conversation.
NOW BACK TO THE CIRCLE…
As concocted, The Circle isn’t bold enough to sway the young into being afraid of what’s shambling perniciously toward us. Instead of a guy waving us down, yelling for us to exit a Starbucks; we’ve got someone just screwing up their nose at their venti macchiato… and, we’re to take that to mean a shooter’s just entered at the front.
The dramatic scale of Mae’s situation is similarly shortchanged by the fact that she herself isn’t burdened by the string of compromises she makes. She’s without active direction, living in a binary world where she can get on board and comply, or be left behind in an analog isolation where peace can still be cruelly shattered. Even when the people in her old life are unable to cope with the pace of this social evolution, she isn’t moved to filter their predicament through their perspective for very long. Without a genuine series of decisions stemming from conscious or unconscious concerns, she goose-steps down the corporate corridor of power to accept more transparency and an inescapable accessibility as the eventual face of the corporate brand.
The other Millennial characters in the film see the same myriad benefits, too, from company-sponsored, self-curated images, until it’s too late. Maybe, what clearly propels their entrepreneurial spirit—self-regard—doesn’t permit them to entertain problems from the chance overnight success they aspire to. In real life, other generations can be accused of the same kind of myopia and rationalization. But, in spite of their effortful practice of an authentic, virtuous consumerism, Gen Y doesn’t seem able recognize its own penchant for self-indulgence.
POLITICAL STUFF AGAIN… (more Gen Y bashing)
Maybe, it’s too harsh to accuse them of a hollow snarkiness that, when directed back at them, morphs into a caustic humorlessness. But, it’s why you have the PC-police on college campuses; the need for professional internet reputation-fixers—paid for by cyber-bullying insurance; and the lionization of self-effacing, sexually aggressive comics like Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler, whose brazenly confessional routines display a realness that most of them can only hope to mirror via online personas.
That they can’t stomach being criticized isn’t surprising. We’ve taught them to stubbornly overvalue themselves. Steeped in a warm, loving bone-broth tended by their doting parents—and a world falling over itself to appeal to their spending habits—why should they find fault with themselves? At this point before they get woke, consequences can be set aside as deftly as a finger swipe. This goes to explain why they don’t gaze onto such a dangerously enabling climate as The Circle’s with suspicion.
While The Circle’s mutual endorsement of Mae necessitates her total submission to its mission of the unchecked control, management, and manipulation of private information—even taking over many roles of the federal government in taxation and elections—the company also unwittingly adopts some constraints to their power. But, by then, their technology has so consolidated many of the processes that govern all our daily interactions the only difference is the new titular head that Mae ushers in.
And at one character’s stark realization that the revolution is doomed—it’s long past the time to wonder at his once-hidden motives. The ending isn’t so much a shock, as a non-shock, unfortunately; a disappointing reversal that really doesn’t signify anything because the system has essentially been running itself in a smiley-faced, shallow singularity.
As I write this, I can’t help but notice the cue from my sandwich’s packaging, which coos, “Relax. All you have to do is enjoy.”