The Circle

I like Emma Watson. I think we’d be friends if we could get past the whole fame/fan thing. I don’t feel the same way about her former co-stars in the Harry Potter franchise. It’s not that I don’t like Daniel Radcliffe or Rupert Grint, but their public personas aren’t as appealing to me. Watson appears to be intelligent, socially active, and, judging by her film choices, interested in some of the same things I’m interested in professionally – the social media-mediated world, early 90s nostalgia, and the perils of our whole-scale embrace of digital technologies. Were we friends, I would try to keep the Harry Potter-talk to a minimum, I promise.

Now, by saying what I’m about to say, I don’t mean to besmirch Emma Watson’s public image. She may be exactly who she appears to be. But there’s no guarantee she is the person she appears to be in my social media feed. Yes, she gives speeches on women’s rights and made a great, satirical movie with Sofia Coppola (and a very bad could-of-been a satire with James Ponsoldt), but those activities could have been “brand” oriented instead of personally motivated. Those things might not be indicative of who she is really at all. She could be acting on advice given to her by a publicist instead of following her heart. Maybe she’s merely ambitious and skilled at manipulating her public image to appeal to the masses. Maybe. If that is what she’s doing, that doesn’t make her nefarious. She’s merely doing what we all do all the time in this social media-mediated world. We’re all actors who present to the public what we want the public to see. The human heart is perfectly capable of deceiving itself; deceiving other people who can’t see into our hearts is even easier.

Heck, I’m doing it right now. I’m presenting myself to you as a knowledgeable film critic, (hopefully) gently convincing you that I’m a person to read regularly to better understand the movies and cinema culture. I want you to be my fan. I try to be honest, but even “being honest” is part of my brand. If I flipped the script and presented my worst self to you instead, even that would be a presentation. Genuine transparency is genuinely difficult if it’s possible at all. Paul’s assertion that one day we’ll “know fully even as we are fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12) is astounding both in the “knowing fully” and in the being “fully known.” On this side of eternity, both seem/are impossible.

The Emma Watson-starring The Circle plays with these same ideas, nodding to questions about public presentatio,n how whether or not privacy is either possible in this always-connected present, and if we really want privacy anyway. I say it “nods” to those questions, because it really doesn’t explore them in any depth. It comes across confused in the end, and unfortunately the narrative journey we take to that confusion isn’t particularly compelling either. There’s no sense to anything that happens or to anything any character does throughout the film. 

Maybe the problem is Emma Watson, not her acting but her stardom. From what I can make out, her character, Mae is supposed to be something of a villain, I think. She certainly makes bad choices throughout that lead to bad things, but she’s also presented as a kind of liberating hero in the end. I don’t know. The Circle should be satire, but instead it’s just strange. Perhaps you can’t cast “Hermione Granger” as a villain right now.

There is an interesting undercurrent of religiosity to the film’s proceedings. The Circle, the company, operates kind of life a cult. It converts Mae to its cause. It promises her near-eternal happiness. It swallows her life. She becomes a kind of evangelist for its work. But these cultic concerns get lost in the narrative morass too, unfortunately. None of them are developed. They’re simply stated (and stated simply) and shuffled along in favor of (meaningless) plot twists. Still, the questions themselves are worth asking, so I’ll end by asking them here:

Would radical transparency be good for society if it isn’t also accompanied by radical grace? Is radical transparency even possible?

If everyone is broadcasting their own personal Truman Show, would anyone watch? Is this what we’re doing now?

How much freedom should corporations be given to shape society? People are held responsible for their actions by the social compact. What holds corporations accountable? The market? Is that enough?

Why do we respond religiously to digital technologies? Is it merely marketing? Is it because it promises to make a better world for us? Is it because we find it inherently mysterious? Is is because when we use it, we feel like we belong?

How can we work toward a technologically advanced future that is also marked by justice, mercy, and goodness? Can our internet-ed lives foster love?