If there’s an Achilles heel for hard sci-fi it’s that the ideas are often bigger than the narrative. Cheaper-end sci-fi writers often sink a lot of their attention into what’s happening to their characters without ever addressing why anyone should care that it’s happening. Last year’s sound stage sci-fi feature Circle is the height of big-ideas-over-character-development genre work. Essentially a Twilight Zone premise stretched to feature length, Circle is a glorified table read featuring fifty archetypal characters standing in a . . . circle & talking each other through a philosophical/supernatural crisis. Each character functions to serve the story, not the other way around, so if you’re going to enjoy the film it has to be on an intellectual level, not an emotional one. Good thing for Circle that its ideas are interesting enough to carry its breezy 87 minute runtime on their back without any real support from its faceless chess piece personalities.
Fifty strangers wake to find themselves standing on a circular board game-esque platform with no real explanation of how or why they arrived there. It quickly becomes apparent that they’ve been assembled to play a sadistic kind of game, a philosophical social experiment. At one or two minute intervals the circle removes a piece from the board, i.e. zaps someone to death. The characters soon discover that they are anonymously voting as a group on who will die next. A lot of finger-pointing, lying, begging, manipulation, and hateful prejudice (racism, classism, homophobia, the whole gamut) turns this already dire situation even uglier as their ranks become increasingly thin. Philosophical questions about whose life should be valued over others’ (whether it be for age, sexuality, criminal past, what they “contribute to society”, etc.) are asked until they reach their logical end- or until the more desperately conniving players decide to gang up & save their own skin.
I won’t ruin the details of who survives Circle‘s deadly sci-fi board game, since the process of elimination is where most of the film’s entertainment value lies. I will say, though, that the film ultimately reaches a satisfying conclusion worthy of the shocking reveals of its Twilight Zone roots. It’s generally obvious who will die next in the moment when it’s happening. For instance, if someone says something overtly racist or homophobic it’s typically a given that they’ll be the next player zapped to death (which is entertaining in its own way). However, as the film gets uglier in its interpersonal conflict the kills get increasingly unpredictable and the looming question of who or what is behind the mysterious circle’s origin becomes increasingly fascinating.
Beyond what the film does or doesn’t accomplish narratively, Circle does a good job of distinguishing its own sense of style despite its obviously limited budget. Filmed in a black sound stage void, the movie somewhat resembles the music video for Battles’s 2007 indie hit “Atlas“. Its soundtrack of atmospheric drone & 360° camera spinning can be downright eerie in their own right and the emptiness of its set ultimately serves the abstract philosophy of its narrative by highlighting the dialogue as a focal point. Again, this is a film that survives on the strength of its ideas, which are plotted out in an interesting enough structure to keep your mind active & engaged throughout. Calling to mind both the similarly-minded supernatural horror Devil & real-life social experiments like The Stanford Prison Study, Circle is a perfectly entertaining exercise in ideas-over-characterization sci-fi writing.