How much does your company know about you? How about your coworkers? Is privacy – personal or in the workplace – important? Or even desirable? Do employers have a right to know about your personal life? A right to your medical information to help you prevent costly care that could impact their insurance rates? What about politicians – should constituents know more about what they’re doing, who they’re talking do, who influences them? And if so, how much more?
In the wake of news reports that a Wisconsin-based company plans to implant a microchip in employees – not a tracker, not a medical device, but to allow them to open doors, log into a computer system, pay for company-provided snacks, etc., the issue of personal and corporate privacy is once again raised. And in The Circle, originally released in April, and set to have its DVD and BluRay release on August 1, issues of transparency to the extreme as a benefit – or major detriment – to society are explored.
The movie has an all-star cast. Emma Watson, with an unconvincing American accent (it slipped more than once), stars as naive young Mae, brought in to the corporate world of The Circle as a “customer experience” employee. The Circle is, as best as I can tell, an all-encompassing lifestyle and financial Web account, including banking, social media, and, possibly, citizenship functions. Her best friend Annie, Karen Gillan, is an aide to the company’s visionary and founder, Eamon Bailey, played by Tom Hanks, and his partner, Tom Stenton, played by Patton Oswalt. Mae’s parents, portrayed by Glenne Headley and Bill Paxton (who both passed away this year), are facing severe financial and medical problems brought on by the father’s multiple sclerosis and an uncaring insurance company. And John Boyega is Ty Lafitte, the genius responsible for creating the technology that makes The Circle possible.
As Mae begins to work for The Circle, she’s pulled farther and farther into the the corporation’s culture of extreme transparency. Employees have Facebook accounts that they are pushed – not just encouraged – to use to give their coworkers access to every aspect of their lives. Evening and weekend activities are nearly mandatory; living quarters are supplied. Mae’s parents are brought into the company’s healthcare plan. All of this sounds fairly innocuous, possibly more enticing to a generation younger than I am. But how far can, and should, this go?
There are cracks in the company’s perfection. A congresswoman calls for an investigation into The Circle’s practices. She’s quickly discredited and taken away in disgrace. Another congresswoman pledges total transparency, sending every one of her email accounts, bank accounts, and more to the millions of Circle users. Cameras with data collection and analytic capability are developed by the company as a way to keep an eye on global hotspots, dictatorships, and other trouble areas. But they’re quickly placed everywhere, putting all locations in view (for good and bad, in both dangerous and embarrassing situations).
This film had the possibility of being a fascinating techno thriller. There are a lot of exciting elements to it, and a very strong cast. But it feels, in many ways, like half a story. Karen Gillan’s health and emotional state deteriorate through the film – why? The only answer provided is lame and unconvincing, when it could have been an exciting subplot. John Boyega’s character, Ty, has had a crisis of conscience about the monster he’s created, but really goes nowhere with it. What happened with both the disgraced and the friendly congresswomen? And in the final scene, which could have been the jumping-off point for a very timely, thrilling plotline, drops and ends.
I doubt that nearly any of the technology in The Circle isn’t currently available or in development, and it won’t be long before we start to see, if we haven’t already, much of it being put into use – or being roundly protested as too invasive (and then being put into use anyway). And I’m sure that much of the corporate culture shown in the film is currently being offered to/expected of employees somewhere, and much of it may be in the plans of large companies, especially tech giants like Google.
But as a social commentary alone, this is a film worth seeing. The film’s special features,
Special features on the BluRay are pretty sparse. The first, “No More Secrets: Completing the Circle” is really an introduction to the production (the movie was based on the book of the same name by Dave Eggers) and the cast. “The Future Won’t Wait: Design and Technology” focused on the thinking and work behind the graphic look of the movie. And because Bill Paxton died shortly after completing the film, there’s a tribute to him. (There’s no mention of Glenne Headley’s June 8 death, however.) I would have loved to see something about the technology detailed in the film and whether it’s currently in development or even in use; a director’s commentary; something that would really be worth it.
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