'Circle' an Eerie Sci-Fi Indie With Heavy Ideas, Heavier Tone

Directed by: Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione; Runtime: 87 minutes
Grade: C-

Those who have experienced the rigors of vote-off reality shows, especially those of Survivor, will immediately get where directors Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione are headed with the micro-budget indie, Circle. Gray-area morals, voting alliances, and evaluating people on their roundabout worth -- in terms of family, profession, and past experiences -- formulate into a type of social experiment when deciding who's getting kicked off the island and who gets to stick around a little longer. Instead of playing for a million bucks like reality-show competitions, Circle has far more immediate repercussions: those who are voted out are immediately killed, and it seems like the last person left might just be the only one leaving with their life. With that escalation of the stakes also comes a drastic amplification of the types of conversations had among these participants, forming into a heavy-handed, overly eclectic tempest of social topics determining the mortality of these individuals.

Of course, there's another key difference: the people involved with this situation didn't volunteer, having no choice in the matter. Spread out in an incredibly dark room, a group of fifty strangers stand upon red luminescent discs as they face towards a mysterious, futuristic black-and-red device, unaware of where they are or how they got there. Soon, they learn that stepping off their discs leads to immediate death by electrocution, and just a little time after that, they discover that selected individuals will be electrocuted while standing still on the discs as well. Eventually, the group figures out that they're actually casting secret votes for different people spread across the circle, controlled by hand gestures, and that they'll likely continue to keep dying so long as they cast votes or step off the pedestals. Then, the truly complicated part of the scenario begins, where everyone tries to figure out who's the next to die and who, in one way or another, is less deserving of being the last person standing.

Giving its audience zero time to get the know the fifty participants beforehand, Circle revolves around the attitudes and information these people choose to provide amid this death trap, which could be honest reflections of who they are or false "characters" they've devised as a fight-or-flight response. Because of this, and because of the hasty two-minute (...ish) intervals in which they're killed off by the machine, everything relies upon the underlying thought exercise to move its Twilight Zone-esque plotting forward, having little chance for this to become a genuine examination of the superficial people themselves. Instead, this film scrutinizes the broad nature of humanity itself, gathering together a wide range of Americans -- young and old, light skinned and dark, healthy and disabled -- who figure out which single one among dozens possesses a stronger reason for living than the others, all based on the elements of themselves that they choose to reveal, voluntarily or through their reactions.

Fueled by performances that range from stiff to convincing, including a reactionary and fraught turn from Julie Benz as a middle-class wife, Circle takes an unsavory approach to this philosophical experiment with the rationale behind how people decide which person's the next to go. It's commendable that Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione want to incorporate themes about how society judges others and evaluates their individual worth, but their approach works much too hard to incorporate as many conceivable facets of the human condition as possible into the group's decision-making, coming up more like a social commentary checklist than naturally occurring talking points. From cancer survivors and military servicemen to same-sex parents and illegal citizens, the details of people's lives are scrutinized, attacked, and quantified in brave but loathsome ways, some of which are contorted for the sake of throwing individuals under the bus. And then, instead of the group logically voting off the "lesser" of two targets off in the next round, the nasty current of the circle typically gets directed at another hot topic to be deconstructed.

This melting-pot abundance of people involved and the speed in which they die are what keep Circle from being a more meaningful piece of work, too frequently throwing its cynical ideas at the wall in hopes that at least a few of 'em stick. Bits of truth about the stereotyping and profiling that humans do to themselves emerge in their fierce bickering, but when they're paired with the scheming and cutthroat logic that lead to immediate executions, most of that potency zaps away as the rounds keep going on and on. That becomes especially true once the exceedingly dour ending paints a grotesque portrait of how far certain people will go to secure their livelihood. Since there's little to enjoy in the drama of observing the participants systematically cut each other down, while making decisions like whether to kill a child or a pregnant woman first, Circle doesn't have much surging it forward beyond its bleak musings on who could end up being the sole survivor, and this certainly isn't a game.

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