Circle (2015)

*. “I want to play a game,” says Billy the Puppet. What you want is irrelevant since you don’t really have a choice in the matter. When you wake up, you’re already in the thick of it. But more than that, the game is clearly the game of life. We all have to play.
*. We’d been here before. The Most Dangerous Game took the idea of the survival of the fittest to its logical conclusion. Sure it was a rich man’s game, an artificial construction if ever there was one, but it was meant to represent nature red in tooth and claw. Winners live, losers die. The law of the jungle.
*. In later years the struggle for survival would even be televised: we could see the results in movies like Rollerball, The Running Man, and Battle Royale, or watch the “real” thing on shows like Survivor. It became entertainment not just for an elite but for the masses. And then it would take a turn for the sadistic. Enter Billy and the torture games.
*. Circle‘s writing-directing team of Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione had done their own take on extreme reality TV with a short-lived series called The Vault. You can see this movie as an outgrowth of that show, but the idea was everywhere in the twenty-first century.
*. In all these various guises what we’re presented with is the same basic existential dilemma: discovering ourselves in an absurd position, we must somehow affirm the value and meaning of our lives by testing ourselves against other people, fate, God, or whatever cosmic or natural forces seem to be pulling the strings.
*. No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre is a drama presenting us with three characters locked in a room together for what may be eternity. Though well appointed, the room is actually a torture chamber of sorts that they can’t think their way out of. In retrospect it might be seen as an intellectual version of Saw (as well as a lot of other movies). It’s really hard to overstate the prevalence of the theme at this time. As evidence I’d only point to a movie like Predators, where I made the connection between Sartre’s play and a group of people who suddenly find themselves tossed into the most dangerous game.
*. Circle certainly had me thinking of No Exit, both for the set-up (once again we have a group of characters waking up to find themselves trapped in a chamber of hell where they are being killed off) and for the general Little Theatre heatre vibe to the proceedings. The whole thing was reportedly shot in under two weeks on a single set and one could easily imagine a stage version being produced.
*. As far as its film heritage is concerned, the closest resemblance is to Cube (1997), a movie that was definitely in mind. (Hann and Miscione, for what it’s worth, claim their main influence to have been 12 Angry Men, which I don’t see at all.) Again the central question is “What are we doing here?” meaning, more broadly, what are we doing alive, on this planet (if we’re still on this planet), just as much as “What are we doing in this crazy prison?”
*. With regard to the latter, more immediate, question, we have to give the prisoners or contestants credit for figuring the game out in one hell of a hurry. They are, however, slow to understand that the best strategy is to keep a low profile because it’s obvious from the get-go that opening your mouth is just going to land you in trouble. Especially when you reveal yourself as intolerant or bigoted, as well as a player.
*. In at least one way, however, I’d say the speed with which they understand how the game works is unrealistic. Why, for example, would they assume that one of them is going to live at the end? Couldn’t the aliens just zap whoever’s left over? Since we have no idea what the purpose of the game is, there’s no way for us to tell how it might end, or if there would be a winner.

*. The trick in making a movie so limited in its resources is to not so much conceal those limitations as to make us forget about them. Circle does a decent job of this, with the relentless pace of the game forcing the drama along (at least one contestant gets removed every two minutes), and enough surprise picks to keep things interesting. If I had a complaint about the minimal presentation it’s that the design of the circle itself and the sound effects used to signal an approaching vote make it all seem a little too much like a television game show. I wonder if the aliens in fact imitated this look and sound to make the contestants feel more at home.
*. For some reason the game also reminded me of the Carousel that culls the population in Logan’s Run. Not an association I think the producers would want audiences to make.
*. Do we mind that the end is left enigmatic? Some people actually found it provided too much information, as compared, for example, to Cube. I didn’t mind being left hanging as to what the point of it all is, though given the outcome of the contest it seems clear that there wasn’t any point. The contest plays out like one of those classic social psychology experiments (Milgram, Zimbardo), but one that we can’t draw any conclusions from. We don’t know if it was even intended as an experiment or just as a game show. If the latter, there is no need to point a moral at the end.
*. I wish the script worked a bit better. I would like to have seen more confusion on the part of the contestants. Instead, the bickering falls into predictable patterns and there are too many exchanges that sound scripted and obvious. That is, again, a Little Theatre kind of thing that makes it seem more like we’re watching a filmed play. The directorial style (lots of long shots and smooth transitions) exaggerates this further, and personally I think they should have tried to ratchet things up visually to inject the odd note of chaos and urgency.
*. What we’re left with is a good little movie, talky and far less graphic than you’d expect given the current state of the genre but at the same time not one that shows us anything new. In a lot of ways it’s really a throwback. Hann and Miscione also cite the original Twilight Zone series as being an inspiration, which debuted just a couple of years after 12 Angry Men. Given the time delay in picking up our broadcasts in another corner of the universe, perhaps these were the programs the aliens have been watching on their journey to Earth and their game was just an attempt at re-creating what they figured would be a more natural human environment. Heaven help us if the next wave of visitors have been watching anything we’ve made in the last twenty years.

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