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A Review of "Circle" (2015)

Circle is a low-budget science fiction / horror movie that has probably showed up on the home screen of your Netflix account by now.  It will naturally invite comparison to Cube for literally dozens of reasons: the acting is serviceable although not spectacular, the set design is minimalist, but wonderfully realized, it elicits tension from the extremes of human cruelty and pettiness, its title is a geometric reference, etc.

The plot is, through its simplicity, the best part and the main reason to watch.  Fifty strangers wake up in a bizarre room where they are arranged in a circle and quickly learn that they have to vote on which of them - and there can only be one - will live.

I'll come right out and say that this is an imperfect movie.  I don't think most people are going to love it - in fact, I think it's likely that most audiences will get tired of it quickly and turn it off.  But I would still recommend it simply because there's nothing else out there quite like it.

If you'll permit me to streeeeeeeetch out and make a terrible analogy: Circle is to movies what zombie mythology is to discussions about the Apocalypse.  It treads a lot of tired ground and may be annoying, but you'll probably still have fun trying to figure out what you would do in the circumstances.

Virtually anything else I can say about the plot is technically a spoiler, so I'll break out the rest of this based on how much of the plot I'm giving away.

The Part With Mild Spoilers

So, here's the deal.  Through a series of handy, albeit far-fetched, observations, the characters realize three things about their predicament within the first 15-20 minutes: 1) They've all been abducted by aliens (apparently most of them were fleeing an alien invasion at the time - details, right?), 2) The aliens have inserted crazy probes into their bodies that allow them to subtly move their hands and anonymously vote for somebody who they want to die, and 3) They have to keep voting about roughly every two minutes until only one person is left.

The movie is pretty strict about these rules and has a bit of fun with seeing how the victims handle their predicament.  Some refuse to play, some voluntarily commit suicide, and some try to break the rules by forcing ties or otherwise messing with the process.  All the same, one or more people die once every couple of minutes, so there's no side-stepping the premise.  They do, in fact, keep going until only one person is left standing.

With this in mind, I have two major complaints that hampered the movie for me, and I think they'll probably make it tough for most other people as well.

First is that so many of the people are just blatant assholes.  And I know the filmmakers probably intended that because they were hoping to make some commentary on human nature or politics or whatever, but... no.  No, they're just assholes.

There's at least two white dudes who spend their time spouting homophobic slurs or explaining why blacks and Mexicans should all be arrested.  Even acknowledging that these attitudes are prevalent in our society and could still be expected during an alien invasion... why would you open your mouth and talk shit when you know everybody else in the room is going to be forced to decide whether or not you live or die in the next two minutes?!  Surely you'd be freaking out too much about not dying and you could keep your hate in check long enough to let other people's internalized racism do the dirty work for you, right?

Hell, one of the guys isn't even a bigot.  He's just a straight-up douchebag who wastes everybody's time by harassing a woman next to him and breaking her down to hysterics.  Why?  WHHHHHYYYYYY would you do that?!  You fucking idiot!

That's basically how you'll spend the first third of this movie.  Just shouting "You fucking idiot!" at the screen.

It gets to a point where the assholery is more unbelievable than the basic premise of the film, and that's just unforgivable.

The other problem I have is that the movie doesn't really work on a metaphorical level.  Y'see, if you're going to make a movie like this where you don't really explain the specific reasons why things are happening, then you've committed yourself to one of two paths: either you're simply trying to create and sustain a certain type of mood, or you're trying to create a metaphor with a statement behind it.  Circle isn't really evocative of any particular mood - other than frustration, I guess - and it's loaded to the brim with social commentary.  So you expect that the titular circle is a metaphor of some sort.

...but it's not a very good one.  What is it supposed to be?  The circle represents society?  Politics?  Money?  Healthcare?

In real life, nobody votes explicitly to deprive people of things - we vote to entitle people to things.  Deprivation happens as a side effect due to negligence or poor planning.  So pick any metaphor you want, and Circle will miss the point.  Suppose the circle was a metaphor for money - translated to the real world, that would be like if we voted once a year to completely bankrupt somebody.  That doesn't actually happen.

It's not a bad vehicle to make a statement about society, but without some kind of valid, real-world analogue to hook it to, the voting in Circle is ultimately a bunch of nonsense.

There is some great stuff in here, though, but I have to get into spoilers to talk about it.

The Part With Heavy Spoilers

I have to admit that I almost turned this movie off.  It opens with a pretty good fifteen minute introduction, and then it just lags for a good half hour or maybe even more.

But if you hang in with this one until the hippie-looking guy starts to get chatty, then you'll find the true merit.  It takes at least half the run-time to get there, but eventually Circle becomes an excellent re-enactment of virtually any night with a bunch of tabletop gamers, and that's pretty fun to watch.

Y'see, two of the victims are immediately outed as being untouchable: an obviously pregnant woman and a little girl of elementary school age.  Early on somebody says something to the effect of, "We should kill one of them now because if they both make it to the end, there will be no way to get a majority vote in your own favor."  And since one of them is going to have to die eventually, anyway, they might as well get it over with.

This doesn't seem to go anywhere right away, but after the herd thins out a bit, the victims divide themselves into two distinct camps: those who want to kill one of the untouchables now and gain a reasonable chance that one of them will survive, and those who want to ensure that the untouchables both survive until the end so that they can figure it out on their own.

Naturally, there's a lot of alliances, fence-sitting, backstabbing, negotiating, and all the other fun stuff that comes with what is basically just an extremely short game of Diplomacy.

When the "game" part of the movie gets into full swing, it's pretty riveting and a good watch.

The Part With All the Spoilers (i.e., Now I'll Bitch About the Ending)

Here's a new one for you.  Circle manages to not have an ending... by having an ending.  Huh?

So, there actually is an ending to this movie.  There's a point where you realize that one dude has been playing everybody the whole time and, through a well-timed vote, dooms both the pregnant woman and the little girl to die.  He makes a quick statement about how humans are assholes, and wonders why he's still there.  Then he realizes he has to vote for the pregnant woman's fetus to die, too - which is ridiculous because I'm fairly certain that her being dead would kill off the baby, but I guess the aliens have magic - and the movie cuts to black.

Now, that part is fine.  That's very much in the spirit of Cube, which likewise ended with one person escaping their prison and fading into a white screen.  It's okay that not all the questions were answered.  The main thrust of the movie - which one is going to survive? - is resolved tidily, and that's all you need.

But then Circle keeps going.  It has this short epilogue where The Survivor wakes up on Earth and walks around, then joins another group of survivors while they stare at some alien ships in the sky.  Then the filmmakers add some voice-over - basically just audio flashbacks to things The Survivor said while he was still trapped in the circle.

The effect is that you end up thinking there's more to the story.  The audio snippets in particular imply that there was something else going on with The Survivor - that maybe he somehow knew more about the aliens than he let on, or that maybe he has some kind of Super Plan that goes beyond what we already saw.

And then it ends abruptly.

If they just cut it off at the actual ending - the final vote and smash cut to black - then you'd have something concise and clean.  It's still a cynical and downbeat ending, but you know as much as you need to know and the movie can be done with.  The epilogue is kinda like negative movie - adding it to the end actually subtracts from the plot and quality. It re-opens a closed case and then just lets it hang.

I've complained about Anna not having an ending and I've complained about Parallels not having an ending... but Circle takes not having an ending to new heights.  Well done.

All the Other Nonsense That Got Pushed Off the Main Page (Post Archive)

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