“The Circle” movie review

Tries for a perfect circle, but winds up more like an oval. Full of endless circular logic and irony, director James Ponsoldt’s The Circle depicts the story of a not-so-distant future, or perhaps an alternative present, in which one company dominates digital media, data gathering, and surveillance services. Based upon the four-year-old novel by author Dave Eggers, you’ll notice some stark similarities between this motion picture narrative and the smash hit TV series Black Mirror. The biggest difference between the two is that The Circle is fast-faced and poorly written whereas Black Mirror is a slow-burning but well-written anthology series. In addition to the similarities between the aforementioned, there are certainly elements of The Truman Show in this movie as well. With a powerhouse cast, brilliant composer (Danny Elfman), and excellent editing, The Circle appears to have what a blockbuster needs; however, the hollow characters, poor character development, fractured subplots, and overall diegesis hold the film back from reaching the impact that it could have had. Having taken a digital media and privacy class in graduate school, and published a few articles, this is a film that I was looking forward to in order to analyze how the social commentary or commentary on the human condition regarding reasonable expectations of privacy and big data were integrated into the plot. Sadly, the screenplay was not strong or developed significantly enough to provide big data and privacy discussions.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) hates her job at the water company, so she is incredibly excited when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) lands Mae an interview at The Circle, the world’s most powerful technology and social media company. Mae’s fear of unfulfilled potential impresses the recruiters at The Circle and she lands the opportunity of a lifetime. After Mae puts herself into harm’s way but rescued, thanks to The Circle’s newest surveillance and data gathering system, she is encouraged by the company founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) to take a more active role in technology development by participating in an experiment that puts Mae’s life on display for the world (in the vein of The Truman Show) to see. Once Mae turns on that camera, she has more “friends” than she ever imagined and becomes an instant online celebrity. Unfortunately, this decision will affect those closest to Mae and the negative ramifications will reach far beyond her inner circle and begin to impact humanity at large. Sometimes, people just don’t want to be found or be “social.”

For all The Circle has going for it, the weak screenplay keeps it from being the blockbuster that it so desperately wants to be. A great movie typically begins with solid writing, and that is what’s missing here. After five minutes (or so it seems) of opening title logos, perhaps that is indirect evidence that there were just too many hands in the pot, each trying to take the movie’s narrative in a different direction. Much like Frozen plays off like two different movies crudely sewn together, The Circle appears to be one movie for the first two acts, but takes an unexpected and unfulfilling turn in the third. A couple of conspicuous unanswered questions come after Mae meets TrueYou designer and founder Ty (John Boyega). He designed the platform that launched The Circle. At one point he asks Mae to meet him in a secret tunnel (where all the servers are stored) and tells her that “it’s worse than I thought.” Great opportunity to introduce intrigue, suspense, and more. The problem is that the audience is never told what Ty finds or what happens with what he found. You can remove that whole subplot and the movie remains the same. There are other subplots that are nicely introduced, but never carried out as well. Any or all of them can be removed and the film proceeds the same. Not good. If you can remove several subplots or unfulfilled turning points and the film’s diegesis remain largely untouched, then you have poor writing. The third act in and of itself leaves audiences with a hurried ending that does little to provide closure to the narrative; however, it does support the film’s circular logic and irony. Hardly satisfying.

In terms of the allegory here, The Circle is a Google-like company with Apple’s technology. Eamon Bailey is a Steve Jobs type innovator with characteristics of Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Thankfully, The Circle does not represent any one company, but rather combines all the most notable innovations and technological achievements of Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, and more into one globally dominating company. Antitrust issues are introduced early on, but again, that’s never fully developed. The movie highlights many issues faced by private citizens, governments, and digital data driven companies today; therefore, it sets the foundation for a movie that could have been thought-provoking, but the writing hinders that ability. The irony in the movie is for every digital answer to streamlining services or bolstering conveniences, a little privacy is eroded each time. Pretty soon, if one shares enough information, the idea of privacy is extinct. Privacy was central to the plot, but it just wasn’t handled in the most effective way. Concepts such as “off the grid,” self-proclaimed “celebrity,” and “calls to action” are displayed and discussed in the film, connecting this augmented reality to real-world issues each of us encounter or think about. One particularly interesting theme in the movie is deep friendship. Unfortunately, this was not fully fleshed as is the case with most of the movie; but still, it does get touched upon.

Exploring digital media and privacy is something I have written on within the last couple years. More specifically, I explore how entertainment media companies collect big data, and the privacy issues faced therein. In 2016, I published a short series of articles on the Walt Disney World Magic Bands entitled “Magical Data Collection.” You can read those articles by clicking HERE.

If you were hoping for another film like the brilliant Social Network, then you will undoubtedly be disappointed. Films such as The Circle should be memorable, but unfortunately this one is very much forgettable. Coincidentally, the movie itself is as hollow as the plot and characters.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

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“Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens” movie review

Star Wars VIIThe force awakens…then realizes it’s done this all before and should’ve stayed in bed. Return to that time long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Relive that first moment you saw Star Wars IV and fell in love with the franchise, because you are pretty much getting a plot so similar that you may wonder if the rest of this new trilogy will just continue to rehash and polish what’s all been said and done before. A more appropriate title for this visually stunning film would have been Star Wars: DejaVu or Star Wars: Revisited. No doubt that this film will indeed perform well this weekend; but that has a lot to do with the fact that so many people will view this film through an augmented reality and perceive it to be better than it actually is. The Big D can do no wrong, right??? All that being said, J.J. Abrams once again proves that he is a master at visual storytelling and his films are of a high caliber from a technical achievement perspective. The cinematography and editing are nearly flawless and really help to mesmerize the audience and impress even those who are generally not impressed by visual graphics and sound design. Watching the screen as familiar faces reprise the roles that cemented them in cinema history is nostalgic and heartwarming. Unfortunately, the writers should have spent more time developing a NEW story versus relying upon nostalgia.

With Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in hiding, the Resistance, which has birthed out of the old rebellion, needs to find him in order to defeat the The First Order, a new world empire developed out of the ashes of the old Empire. In an effort to avoid capture, BB8 meets Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Through a series of events, this small band of rebels encounters the legendary general and smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Form). Working together, they need to get the information in this BB unit to the resistance so that The First Order may be stopped. Leading The First Order is Kylo Ren, a masked, dark, and menacing Sith under the direction of the Supreme Leader. Follow familiar and new faces on a journey through the galaxies to stop this new empire from destroying all that is good.

Put simply, this film relies too heavily on the previous movies, thus prohibiting a new story to “awaken.” It was made known early on that Abrams desired to create a new old-school Star Wars sequel to the original trilogy. And in many ways, he did just that. The problem is that it is way too old school and forgets that this movie was also responsible for relaunching the dormant (as far as theatrically released movies) franchise and introducing something truly new. He was so concerned with pleasing everyone–old fans and new ones alike–that he ended up not pleasing anyone who is willing to step back and actually examine the film as a film. All this film did was reuse past plots and forget to give the eager audience and fanbase something legitimately new after waiting so long. The overall plot, locations, and characters lack anything newly appealing. The movie even begins on a desert planet and ends with the destruction of a “not” Death Star–but it basically is–just larger.

With more than half of the movie consisting of space travel and battle sequences, you will wonder if you are actually playing Star Wars: Battlefront. Why? Because it looks and feels very similar to a highly developed video game that includes film sequences to transition to the different chapters or levels. Just pick one of the characters in the film and you can almost feel yourself moving them with your controller. One of the most memorable elements to the original trilogy is the nearly unparalleled cinematic villain–and the one who many try to be but fail–Darth Vader. Don’t worry, “there is another” as Yoda put it in Empire Strikes Back. However, this new “Vader” will leave you wondering how the writers thought he (Kylo Ren) could even come close to filling Vader’s boots and mask. From the mask to the red lightsaber, Kylo Ren appears to be just as menacing as Lord Vader. And there was some promise there. Unfortunately, the writers took any potential of a comparable sinister villain and essentially emasculated him when he removes his mask to reveal a guy in his 30s with luscious wavy hair. After that, it is impossible to take Kylo Ren seriously as a villain for the remainder of the movie.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the writing in general was poorly developed and executed, just wait a moment. Actually, the writing includes some comedic relief, moderately intense moments, with some pretty decent rushed character development, and sufficient exposition. The problem with the writing lies in the overly used plot elements and past Star Wars tropes. The script essentially lives in the past even though there are parts of it that want to live in the present. Leaving the audience thinking that they’ve seen this all before, the writers fail to include anything new and interesting. Instead of coming across as a much-needed sequel or revival, the film plays out as a reboot. There isn’t anything innately wrong with reboots of old, beloved franchises; but Disney and Abrams indirectly promised the sequel that never was but should have been after Return of the Jedi. Sequels are required to advance the story, introduce significantly new material, and move the plot along. The Force Awakens can easily be interpreted as 3/4 reboot and 1/4 sequel.

Visually, the film is cinematically brilliant! The sound design is also incredibly well executed. Even the score is beautiful. What one can appreciate about the score is that there is familiar music wrapped in a completely new score. Too bad the plot didn’t takes notes from John Williams on how to include the old but advance the new. There is no doubt that this movie will be nominated, if not win the Academy Awards in the technical achievement areas–and it deserves them. Honestly, I think some of the editing and graphics team from this movie should work on improving the graphics in the next Jurassic installment. Abrams promised that he would go back to practical effects and merely enhance them with digital effects, and he did just that. The combination played out very well and impressed me. He may not have delivered the movie that Star Wars fans wanted to see, but he did keep his promise to not rely on cheap digital effects as a large part of the design.

If you want to relive the first time you saw A New Hope, then here is your opportunity. It’s basically the same movie, but looks way more impressive. For those who wanted an actual sequel to resurrect this piece of Americana, then you may be disappointed. I really hope the next installment will give me something new. At the end of the day, the movie is certainly entertaining; and seeing Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, C3PO, and R2D2 on screen again, in their most iconic roles, is just plain cool and heartwarming. The nostalgia will certainly bring some to tears. And I also want to point out that this IS a fantastic film for a family, whether diehard fans or not, to spend some time together over the holidays at the movies.