You know what the Plugged In offices need? A ball pit.
It’d be nice to thrash around in a sea of plastic balls after a particularly grueling movie review, paddling through rainbow-hued, somewhat smelly …. What? We don’t have money for that sort of stress-relieving recreation?
Hmmm. Wonder if The Circle is taking applications?
The Circle—a tech Leviathan that’s one part Apple, one part Facebook and three parts Big Brother—probably has a ball pit. It has everything else to keep its employees happy, it seems, from rock climbing walls to volleyball courts, from dormitories to full-fledged nightclubs. The campus is roughly the size of Liechtenstein, and the company’s founders—Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton—want to make sure that its employees feel well-cared for and never, ever want to leave.
I don’t mean leave for another job. Like, leave the campus.
Mae Holland, one of The Circle’s newest employees (or “guppies,” as Bailey calls company newbies), is duly impressed by all The Circle’s dizzying perks and vaunted corporate culture. Though, truthfully, she’s a wee bit troubled by some of its zeal. The tech giant’s Friday get-togethers kinda put the “cult” in culture. And The Circle likes to keep track of its employees, even when they’re off the clock: its social managers are a little flummoxed when Mae doesn’t mention her visit to her parents or an afternoon spent kayaking. They would say that The Circle is, after all, all about community. And it wants its employees to be very community-minded.
“Just for fun!” she’s told.
But for Mae, sometimes it can be “a little much.”
Then one night, when she swipes a kayak to take a quick paddle around the Bay, she paddles too far. A boat comes out of the fog and nearly hits her. She splashes into the water and would’ve drowned … except that she’s rescued almost immediately. Why? One of the Circle’s super-small, sticky, post-it-anywhere cameras caught her taking the kayak: Big Brother just saved her life.
The experience teaches Mae an important lesson: That privacy is a bad, bad thing. “Secrets are lies,” she tells Bailey later with a newfound passion.
And with that, she commits to becoming the Circle’s latest tech experiment: She’ll live a completely open, transparent life. She’ll wear a camera constantly. Her every word and gesture will be streamed live. She will live in the glassiest of glass houses—the Internet itself.
Man, what some people won’t do for access to a ball pit.
The Circle may have some first-class perks, but its business operations are a bit troubling. And they’re meant to be. We’re forced to ask ourselves a difficult question: As we use and embrace the dizzying technology all around us, just what are we giving up? And is it worth it?
*The Circle, the film, says no. But The Circle, the business, says yes—and it’s an honest yes.
Question the company’s overreach all you want, but Eamon Bailey seems to honestly believe that his push toward complete societal transparency—where everyone knows what everyone else is doing all the time—is the key to positive cultural transformation. His cameras help catch criminals. His tracking chips—installed directly into the bones of children—could practically eliminate kidnapping and child predation. Secrets are a problem. Accountability and transparency are the cure.
“Do you think that you behave better or worse when you’re being watched?” he asks Mae. And Mae, like most of us, says better.
But she’s not so sure everything the Circle does is awesome. For much of the movie, she has one foot in the Circle’s brand of idealism and the other back home, where her parents struggle to cope with her father’s multiple sclerosis. She loves her parents very much, and when a few higher-ups in the corporation allow her dad to be covered by the Circle’s lavish health insurance—and is given a bevy of high-tech screening devices that’ll come in handy in treating the disease—Mae bursts into tears.
Mercer, a friend of hers back home, doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Mae on The Circle. But Mae still couldn’t ask for a more loyal compadre. We see him come to her rescue when her car breaks down, and we get the sense it’s not the first time.
Mae’s ringtone is, tellingly, “Simple Gifts,” a song that came from the Shaker community in 1848. We don’t hear the lyrics until the closing credits, and even so they’re not explicitly religious. But “‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free” suggests both a divine Giver and a certain joy that comes from knowing your place in His creation.
After Mae’s gone completely “transparent”—where practically every waking moment of her day is recorded and streamed—she checks in with her parents and finds them in the act of making love. Mae’s mom straddles her dad as they operate a device of some kind. We don’t see any explicit nudity (Mae’s mother is in a nightgown, and she covers the critical parts of Mae’s father), but Mae quickly turns away. We see her followers’ comments on screen, calling the act by turns natural and beautiful and embarrassing. (Her parents disconnect all the cameras in their house shortly thereafter, and don’t talk to Mae for weeks.)
Mercer has long had a crush on Mae, and Mae’s parents speculate on what it would’ve been like if they had actually gone out and maybe even gotten hitched. Annie, one of Mae’s friends, spies one of the Circle’s tiny cameras stuck to a bathroom stall wall. She rips it off and throws it down, muttering “pervert” as she does so. Someone asks Mae out during a job interview (either sincerely or as a test).
As mentioned, Mae nearly drowns after her kayak is capsized. A man, chased by camera-and-phone-wielding pursuers, accidentally drives a vehicle off a bridge and into a deep, gaping chasm. We see a video feed of the accident, which freezes just as the truck is about to plunge downward. (We later hear definitively the man in the truck dies.)
When Mae posts a picture of one of Mercer’s antler chandelier creations, he’s called a “deer killer” online (despite the fact that deer are actually very much alive when they shed their antlers) and receives death threats. A woman wanted for killing her three children (by locking them in a closet and starving them to death, we’re told), is also chased by bystanders and police. We hear references to assault, murder and “drinking the Kool-Aid.”
One f-word and about 10 s-words. Other profanities include “a–” and “h—.” God’s name is misused a half-dozen times, while Jesus’ name is abused twice.
People drink wine and other alcoholic drinks at a Circle-sponsored concert. When Mae tells another concert-goer that the bar ran out of booze an hour ago, the man pulls a bottle of wine out of the bushes, along with two glasses. Mae’s father drinks beer.
The Circle seems to be running Annie ragged. At first, she tells Mae she has it all under control. “A couple of pills and I’m good.” But later she admits that she nearly killed herself on a diet of “speed and soylent.”
Mae’s dad is pretty sick, and he’s lost use of some of his continence functions. He loses control of his bowels during a party, necessitating he and his wife to make a quick run inside. (We see the back of his soiled jeans, making it pretty obvious what happened.)
The only time Mae is allowed to go off camera is when she’s using the restroom. As such, Mae and her friend Annie have a private conversation while sitting in adjacent stalls.
Good intentioned or no, The Circle still gets plenty dirty behind the scenes. A congressional Circle critic is mysteriously raided by the FBI, and some folks privy to its inner workings talk darkly about the business’s underhanded dealings and, ironically, opaque business practices.
The Circle is a cautionary science-fiction story that’s looking more factual by the day. Based on a 2013 book by Dave Eggers, the flick feels incredibly relevant, even prescient, in an age where our televisions could be listening to us, Facebook Live has streamed some pretty horrendous acts and every online move we make is being monitored and monetized. Sure, the story may be fiction. But the technology we see, and how it’s used and abused, feels like it’s ripped straight from the day’s online headlines.
But a relevant movie does not necessarily make for a good movie.
Artistically, The Circle feels a little muddled. With so much to say, the filmmakers struggled with how to say it, resulting in a confused and rather creepily off-putting story.
And while The Circle minds its manners in some respects—the film’s sexual content is restricted to one very short, untitillating scene, and its rare moments of violence are equally restrained—it does suffer from several offensive profanities and a dearth of rooting interests.
All of which puts The Circle in an odd bin—a movie that’s worth talking about, but not quite worth watching.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.