Despite constant reminders from my friends, I still haven’t seen Black Mirror. For those of you in my boat, the series is molded in the image of The Twilight Zone, where all episodes exist in a different reality. The only connection is that they all focus on the implications of modern day technology. This lack of continuity is exciting, but also scary. I know that at its best, Black Mirror can be mind-blowing, ground-breaking media. At its worst, Black Mirror might look something like The Circle.
The Circle is what would happen if an edgy YouTube comment turned into a feature film. It goes on and on and says nothing (much like these reviews OOOOOHHHHH). Directed by James Ponsoldt (who made the fantastic Spectacular Now), The Circle is a vague reminder that technology is bad…maybe? If there were a coherent argument beyond “evil corporations will steal your privacy,” it might be interesting. Instead, it blatantly plagiarizes from classic emerging tech movies to make its case that… being evil is… evil?
The film introduces us to our protagonist, Mae (Emma Watson). She has just landed an interview for a customer service job at The Circle, a fictional social media powerhouse that combines and streamlines all your online social media accounts. (Because who wants to be on Twitter AND Facebook?) She lands the job and the movie gets to deliver a few tepid Silicon Valley punchlines before Tom Hanks, the “Steve Jobs” of the company, introduces The Circle’s newest product: a super tiny, cheap, high-quality camera that delivers directly to the Cloud.
Naturally, there are some parallels to Orwell’s “1984”. The camera’s dramatic zooming in on these miniature devices betrays a desperation for the audience to know that they are E V I L. Even when characters – whose opinions on technology change by the scene – are doubtful, the movie is there to remind us of how scary everything is. ‘Heavy-handed’ doesn’t even cover it.
The first third of the film is mostly just Emma Watson looking dumbfounded at the world around her. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if she’s scared or impressed. Watson’s American accent is awkward and holds her back, but much of the blame for this can be put on the movie’s stilted dialogue. It feels like the screenwriters James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers (Eggers wrote the novel) recorded some bad improv classes and stole dialogue from there. Scenes go nowhere and are difficult to watch.
Watson is not the only victim. Ellar Coltrane, known for his multi-year performance in Boyhood, is unnatural in every scene. Star Wars’ John Boyega fairs a little better, but not by much. Even the more seasoned actors – Karen Gillan, Patton Oswalt and the late Bill Paxton – struggle in such an oddly-structured, awfully-paced piece.
Eventually, through some unjustified transitions, The Circle turns into a Truman Show rip-off. “Secrets are lies,” the characters decide, and having personal experiences is selfish, so Mae decides to do a 24/7 livestream. Twenty minutes later, the film becomes The Running Man. By the end, the movie becomes a conspiracy theory and a Pepsi commercial. The logic doesn’t make an iota of sense, but even the absurdity of it all doesn’t make the 110-minute runtime any easier to get through.
I would say that The Circle feels like propaganda, but I can’t make out what it was trying to say. The movie avoids any real-world implications of technology in favor of scare tactics: the Apple-Google-Facebook hybrid is evil and authoritarian and stealing everyone’s privacy!!! I suppose The Circle is taking a more conservative approach towards tech, but screaming about how technology is stealing everyone’s privacy doesn’t do much. It’s a shame, because there are genuine and important tech implications worthy of discussion (rampant job displacement, racist programming and the changing of war tactics come to mind). Oh well. Maybe Black Mirror will address them.