We have a saying in the ivory tower: With fiction, you cannot write something truly awful unless you know how to write well; all else is mediocrity. It comes in many flavors, but that’s the gist. When you know conventions, you can then misuse them and come up with true, teeth-grinding garbage. Otherwise you just wind up wallowing in cliche and anti-cliche.
Makes sense on paper, but seeing mediocrity-per-ignorance in action is something else entirely. Thus was my recent experience with Circle, a movie that went straight to Netflix back in October and somehow flew under my radar. I now wish it had stayed there.
I say “flew under my radar” because this movie claims to be inspired by 12 Angry Men, which is an absolute darling of mine, despite the flagrant violations of judicial proceedings it displays. This film Circle is the pyrite to 12 Angry Men’s 24-carat gleam.
The premise is that fifty people find themselves in a dark room with no real recollection of how they got there, and must choose which of them gets electrocuted to death every two minutes. Everyone has a vote, votes are secret, you cannot vote for yourself, someone is selected randomly if no one votes, and the two-minute timer is reset if someone elects to die by stepping out of their designated area. There has also been some kind of alien invasion, and the group theorizes that the aliens put them there to learn about humanity. The viewer learns all of this within the first ten minutes, give or take, and the run-time clocks in at just under 90 minutes.
The trick with such a movie is a balance between the realism such a plot demands to stay grounded and the un-realism that storytelling always seems to need to work. In this regard, 12AM has people like Juror 10, who is a bigot with specific, class-based prejudices that you can conceive of existing in the real world. But he pulls double duty as an Everyman - or Everybigot, I guess - in that he exists in that specific film simply to add drama to the jury proceedings.
These fifty people in Circle are ostensibly diverse, and yet are stereotypes almost to a one. I call this the Glee Effect. The problem is that such a group would not be so diverse, ostensibly or otherwise, if the aliens that collected them and put them there knew nothing about them. It just doesn’t make sense. But as a viewer, you want them to be diverse - in more ways than ostensibly - because that makes for a good plot, and as a writer/director, you have to do it in a way that doesn’t sacrifice realism.
And this is where the long, slow march to second-rate drama begins in this movie. All the arguments about who should die next try to steer toward some social issue or other, and yet never stay focused long enough to be compelling or useful. Almost as if you can’t say something meaningful about race relations or gay rights or what have you in two-minute chunks of dialogue spat out by people killing each other.
It gets worse when the group tries to tackle the more nebulous territory of general ethics. Everyone is on board with trying to save the little girl or the pregnant woman - they assume that the last person there gets to live, which turns out to be true - but can’t agree on how to go about this despite everyone accepting the idea out of hand as the correct way to go about things.
The idea of why this should be done is never brought up. Nor is the topic of abortion, somehow. Both of these would have been not only relevant but also more compelling than the rehashed Race and Class Relations 101 arguments that dominate the film. The entire movie could have hinged on the potential of an unborn child against the potential of a born child. That would have been powerful and, more important, focused. 12AM works because it revolves around one problem; Circle doesn’t because it features a whole wine flight’s worth of them.
Focus issues infect the film’s characterizations as well. No less than six different people - somehow all white men, despite the cast diversity - step forward and try to steer the group toward one idea or another. Juror 8 can’t have six spiritual successors in one film. Thought-blocs emerge and collapse too fast to be kept track of, to the point that you cannot tell how any given character will act from one voting round to the next unless you fall back to stereotypes. The film never asks you to care about how a specific person votes unless they’re on the chopping block, and never challenges the viewer by specifically showing who votes for whom.
This kills the ending in particular. There is no indication that the guy who wins by screwing over both the little girl and the pregnant woman with a trick of timing is going to do so. We never see that he is rotten enough to pull that sort of thing off because we never have the time or screen-space to see it, and if you buy into the “fuck you, we’re all bastards” excuse he gives to the empty room after the fact, then you are a heartless coward.
The saddest part is that this movie could have been more entertaining if they’d just made a sport of being bad. This is also best expressed in the ending. I wanted so dearly for the lights to come up on the “winner,” only for him to find out that the voted dead are alive and he is the one who dies. I wanted the group to forget to try not voting until the final two, only to find out that that’s how you win. I wanted the fat old guy who never spoke and never voted and wound up the penultimate death to win for never voting. I wanted anything but the “Gotcha!” misanthropy I was given, even if it was atrocious. It would have at least been entertaining.
Should you see this recent addition to the long list of fictions making commentary on what happens to democracy under pressure? Only if it gets you to watch or read a better attempt. Or to fill your personal shitty movie quota. Because there’s something to be said for going and enjoying mediocrity in moderation. It’s fun to get angry at the TV every once in a while. And while you could certainly do better than Circle in that regard, you could also do worse. Rather fitting, that.