Essay · Review

Thoughts on The Circle

I saw The Circle (2017) recently and it’s interesting.

I can’t call it a good movie. It’s not exciting, doesn’t have a ‘climax’ per say, and really doesn’t warrant a world-wide release on the silver screen. It sounds like a good book. It would make a better mini-series if it had enough content.

This isn’t going to be a review of the movie however. Honestly, there’s not much to review. Rather, this is an examination of the ideas presented in the film. Interesting, thought-provoking ideas. Just poorly executed in movie-form.

Tech Industry Culture

I’m from a university where the administration practically masturbates to the word ‘innovation’ and gets sexual gratification when a start-up from their campus goes ‘big.’

I can’t say I’ve ever worked at a start-up or in the tech industry (as much as I try), but we all know what it’s like. Untraditional workspaces, nap pods, free breakfasts, fancy swag, etc etc. Tech companies present themselves as cool places to work, and they likely are, but it looks very ‘drinking the kool-aid’ kind of place.

The Circle takes this concept and really digs into it. They practically demonize it by the end of the film.

The film begins with Emma Watson’s character (main character) getting an interview at the famous ‘Circle’ company. A lot of reviewers online have called it a mix of Google and Facebook. I agree, but more like Facebook was absorbed by Google, not that the two originated at the same time.

Anyway, as like anyone IRL, Watson is ecstatic to have gotten an interview and subsequently a job. The film gives an exposition tour of the company’s campus, showing off the benefits (recreational classes, spas, group activities, and so on). Watson is given a tablet to use, is given fantastic health care benefits, and enjoys free concerts and parties.

It’s what everyone wants in their job right?

Probably the best scene in the film is a satire on tech industry kool-aid. Two senior employees approach Watson and ask why she hasn’t been attending Circle activities. Why wasn’t she at the weekend get-together? Why hasn’t she joined any Circle employee groups?

I really enjoyed this scene because it feels so real. Big fancy companies like Google, Facebook, and Shopify give you swag, fun work environments, and free food because they don’t want you to leave. Have you ever heard about the programmers who work ridiculous overtime hours? They don’t take vacation because there are huge pressures to not leave. They don’t have a life outside the company.

It’s weird and messed up.

There are other scenes too where Tom Hank’s character (CEO of Circle) gives lectures to employees. And the employees eat that shit up. It’s very comparable to Apple Fanboys and Steven Jobs.

Privacy and Mega-Corporations like Google

The big thing about The Circle is the idea of privacy. A very hot-button issue right now. In the first third, the film introduces quarter-sized HD cameras which can be placed anywhere and everywhere, manufactured by Circle. The idea is, “if you’re being watched, you won’t do bad things. You’ll be held accountable.”

The film builds on this, eventually debuting the software ‘Soul Search’ which literally hinges on cameras and people identifying a single individual so said individual’s whereabouts become publicly known almost instantly.

It’s spooky, but again it’s kind of real.

Except, as real as it is for governments to spy on their citizens and for corporations to sell their clients’ browsing history, I want to believe in my heart of hearts that smart people wouldn’t be gun-ho about promoting a product that encourages stalking and harassment.

In the movie, they use the ‘Soul Search’ software to locate a fugitive criminal. In an ideal world, this is a good idea, and yes, criminals should be punished. But the way they portray the chase of this criminal is somewhat uncomfortable.

Then they use the software again to find a normal person. The film really goes out of it’s way to show how terrible this software is, but everyone in-story forgives it. They call the subsequent accident a ‘flaw’ that can be ‘fixed.’ But no one sees the flaw that is the software itself. It’s not right to just locate someone without their consent…right?

I think the ‘moral’ of The Circle is: it’s easy to be disconnected from reality when you think you’re saving humanity.

Watson’s character buys into this concept throughout the film, eventually going fully ‘transparent;’ everything she does is broadcasted. She truly believes, because she is being watched, she won’t do anything bad. She wants everyone in the world to abide by this.

Hank’s character eventually proposes the idea that because Circle has such a large audience base (about 71% of Americans) they should propose the government to integrate national voting into their software. Watson builds on this by proposing everyone in the country should have a Circle account.

One line from the movie really stood out to me, said by the COO of Circle: “The government needs us more than we need them.”

Again, this is one of those almost real kind of concepts. Google is a huge corporation and the number one visited website. 81.7% of phones run an android operating system. Google has mapped the world and is getting into the self-driving car industry.

I can’t be the only one, after seeing The Circle, to think Google is a little too powerful, right?

Always being ‘online’

As I mentioned before, Watson’s character goes ‘transparent.’ She wears a camera that is always broadcasting except when she’s in the bathroom (for only three minutes apparently). She wholly embraces the idea and subsequently gains a lot of followers.

A foil to Watson is Karen Gillian’s character. When Watson goes transparent, Gillian actively avoids her. I’m surprised more people didn’t do this. I know I wouldn’t want to interact with Watson’s character on my bad days. I wouldn’t want that pressure of always being ‘on’ around her! Everyone at Circle, except for Gillian, is okay with being around Watson.

Outside of the company we see the opposite. A childhood friend of Watson’s cuts ties after she brings a lot of negative unwanted attention to him. Watson’s parents do the same because they want their privacy. It’s a great way of showing consequences to seemingly ‘good’ actions.

I also like the dynamic shown here. People inside Circle love the idea. They eat that shit up. People outside Circle think it’s weird. It is a classic case of Silicon Valley smelling their own farts and thinking it’s perfume.

Need IRL proof? Just look at Juicero.

This is where I think The Circle goes a little unrealistic. Yes, Silicon Valley is way, way up its own butt, but they’re not maniacal. They aren’t trying to take over the world. I also don’t think the entire world population would be so comfortable with such ridiculous power in the hands of a privately held company.

I understand that the film is set in the very near future, but I have a really had time believing everyone would jump on-board the ‘always on, always being watched’ idea so easily.

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3 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Circle

  1. Great essay. I haven’t seen the movie, but I can tell you the book is a great read. It ends in a really thought-provoking manner; I hope the movie stuck to the original ending. I would highly recommend reading the book, it communicates these concepts in a phenomenal and absolutely believable manner, which it seems like, from your review, the movie didn’t do such a good job with. There is definitely an incredible parallelism between The Circle and the major social media platforms of today. Enjoyed reading your analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad to hear about the novel, because I’ve been told it’s not good. But the ideas presented are so thought-provoking, I couldn’t believe the novel flopped on them. I’ll definitely check it out now, thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think people feel that it’s not good because it doesn’t have a typical ending, but I personally believe that the realistic aspect of the ending is what makes the book worth reading.

        Liked by 1 person

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