So I got this tweet a couple of days from one of you… and because I want you to know that I listen to you, and care very much about what you want to hear we are here. First, the tweet.
@tayoflore Curious if you saw the movie Circle (2015) & what you thought – saw on Netflix & loved concept-very “what would I do?” morality
— Happy Pancake (@PowrdByPancakes) August 16, 2016
And actually, kudos to you Pancake, because dang, is this movie the very center of my wheel house. Sometimes I venture out to popular movies like Batman vs. Superman or Star wars or what have you but that is not what I do best. Movies that are nearly incomprehensible are my forté. Usually most movies that are hard to understand include fullon time travel paradoxes, or Ouroboros-esque movies that cycle out into the infinite. But I have had some success with you all on more normal films like The Prestige, Sicario, and a whole host of other more normal films that just didn’t completely make sense.
But Circle? Circle is EVERYTHING that spins my gears. Let’s see, we have Science Fiction – Check. Complex morality implications – check. In depth Philosophy diving – Check. Low budget, high concept, fantastic script, minimalist style, controversial ideas, Check, Check, Check, Check, and Check. This movie has everything.
My Review and Explanation of the Movie Circle
If you are unfamiliar with the movie, you will soon have to leave, but before you do – let me get you hooked on this crack. The movie begins with 50 people. Five Zero. Standing, in a dark room. They are all unconscious. But soon, one of the fifty wakes. Then another. And then it because super clear that they can’t move off their spots, or touch another person without something very bad happening. And soon people start dying. And ultimately, this group of Fifty, nope, Forty nine, nope, forty eight… need to figure out what is going on, or they are all going to die. Is it a psychopath’s twisted fantasy being played out? Is it an alien invasion experiment? No one has any idea at all. Here, watch the trailer, then… I’m sorry, but you are going to need to leave until you’ve seen the film. Fair enough? But I totally want you to see the film, and come participate in the conversation that I guarantee will get even more complicated than the movie itself.
Circle the Movie Overview
Sometimes when we go down the rabbit hole way too fast we lose people. So let’s talk through what actually happens in this movie. Like, just practically speaking. We’ll leave the philosophical conjecturing til later… but, oh I promise we will get to that soon enough. So what the heck happened?
The very beginning of the movie is all about the initial shock of this situation. The people wake and quickly begin freaking out. It is here that we learn the rules of the Movie Circle. Oh, are there rules in this movie.
Rule #1 – No stepping off your circle. If you step off your circle you will die quicker than any other rule being broken.
Rule #2 – No touching other people. That well set off a warning alarm. No one dies in the movie after touching someone, but it’s safe to assume that they would have, if they continued.
Rule #3 – Every few minutes someone random will die. Unless they vote.
Rule #4 – The person with the most votes will die.
Rule #5 – You cannot vote for yourself.
Rule #5 – In the case of a tie – crazy stuff happens. But generally speaking, if the voters don’t intervene, both will die.
Rule #6 – In the case of a tie, the voters can vote amongst the two, or even change their vote to someone else… which actually plays a significant part as this movie progresses.
Figuring these rules out cost a significant number of lives. This movie has the highest mortality rate of any movie I have ever seen. Like, not even World War Z or Zombieland comes close. People pop by violent electrical shock over and over again. But as the players start to figure out what is going on, the movie goes from shock, to stereotypical profiling, to then game playing. And moves through these stages fairly briskly. And I’ll talk more about each stage in a second. But as we approach the last few players we are left with a very ‘benevolent’ guy that has been orchestrating the survival of a girl and a pregnant woman. Good guy right?! Nope.
And when this guy wins the game, he assumes he is about to be let out, because he is the last man standing. Right? Except nope. The beeping count down continues… and he knows he’s about to die to. They had been assuming that last person would be released. But now he realizes this wouldn’t be the case. But instead of dying he’s in a tie. A TIE?!? What is happening here? Well, normally the dead get dragged away by some unknown force, but this time the pregnant woman’s feet are still on the pad, and the last remaining person is in a tie with the pregnant woman’s fetus. Which, is an interesting comment in it’s own right. But right now I’m just trying to marshal my way through the details of what physically happened. So I’ll leave that until later.
We find out later, in a voice over, that in that tie, because of Rule number Five, the people can’t vote for themselves… and the fetus couldn’t vote, the guy won that stalemate and the fetus was killed next.
And then, for the first time, we leave the dark room. And we see the guy (I think his name is Eric? Please understand, that it is nearly impossible to keep all these quickly disappearing names straight) in an aqueduct (which, as an ex-Angeleno, is a uniquely brilliant location to have them end up in) surrounded by other people staring into the sky… watching alien ships float across the sky. Are these other ‘winners’/’survivors’? Just random people? We don’t know. Cue the credits.
Right? Is that what you took away from what physically happened? Let’s make sure we get the really basic basics squared, because it’s about to get crazy up in here.
The Three Phases of the Movie Circle
As I mentioned above, there were three phases or cycles of discovery as the movie progressed. Almost like the Kübler-Ross cycle of grief, we sort of grow in our acceptance and discovery of the situation as it unveils before us. It starts out with discovery. The rules and the what of this experience. Then it moves on to a phase of stereotyping and moral justifying. And then finally it moves into a gamification of the situation. Each one is important and each one holds nuggets of truth that we need to unpack.
Phase 1 – What is happening
The ‘What is Happening’ phase is the most basic of the three phases. This is the rule discovery phase. It is the conjecturing about how they got here and a bit about the why they are here phase. But it’s formative in that the structure of the movie is built. The Philosophical rules are set here.
And it’s in this phase that we are given the liferaft conundrum. If you have attended a college Philosophy introduction course, you know of what I speak. It’s a simple mental exercise that you’ll understand immediately if you’ve never heard of it. Basically it goes something like this.
A cruise ship hits something and everyone is abandoning ship. In the chaos of the moment, 18 people dive into a life raft that can handle 8. But the severity of the situation doesn’t hit them until after the cruise ship has gone under and the life raft starts taking on water. So here we all are, reading the safety instructions on the life raft, and we realize how deep the crap is we are in. And now we have to decide, who stays in the life raft, and who goes. How do you even begin to build the psychological scaffolding necessary to make a decision as enormous as that?
Are you the guy that decides worth is based on salary? Are you that racist that decides to toss the minorities out because they are lesser than? What about age? Do we kick the older people out of the raft because they’ve already lived long lives? In Philosophy 101 this thought exercise has been a staple for years and years. So concept behind this movie isn’t anything new. But seeing it played out in this new and updated way gives it a fascinating spin.
Phase 2 – Stereotypical Posturing
As the survivors start moving from figuring out the rules and the what of their situation, they quickly head into the psychological scaffolding and justification of their rationalizing. As someone is dying every 2 or 3 minutes the conversation works in fits and starts. This isn’t a long drawn out 2 hour Philosophy class where you get to ponder your options. You either make a collective decision or someone is randomly chosen. And no one likes that option (beside the person chosen that is). So votes happen fast and furious and lots of them are about who spoke last. Or who was the racist? Or who was obviously trying to game this situation?
But this movie explores the realities of how this could possibly go down. I mean, without much in the way of veneer. We see conversations about the latino gang member, and how he beat his girlfriend. He didn’t last long. And wasn’t that one woman a porn star? Hrmmm. Those are fake breasts, right? And what about that lesbian who traveled the world working for NGO’s before marrying her partner and adopting a daughter. Does she deserve to live? “I mean, cause that’s a sin right” says the conservative, suspenders wearing white male. I mean heck, the first five people targeted were the oldest people – and there wasn’t much thought given to that decision at all. They’ve lived the longest, buh-bye.
It is probably the most openly racist, agist, sexist, and homophobic movie I’ve ever seen. And it works, because, what else are you going to do? One of the funniest moments of the movie is the woman who decides they all need to figure out what they have in common… so she would talk about herself and maybe it would ring a bell. Yeah, she was dead within a minute and a half. hahaha. The next guy who’s asked to talk about himself says, “Oh HELLLL no. I like living.” hahah.
Phase 3 – Winning the game
And in the final section of the movie, it moves from racist and stereotypical histrionics to move of a strategic game playing. Two sections of people realize that this entire experiment hinges around the pregnant woman, and the young girl standing next to her. The first group wants to save this duo, and the other group wants to kill them so that someone else would stand a chance to survive. So power moves are made in a very Survivor-esque struggle. I’ll give you one, but then you have to give me two, sort of a way. So instead of profiling around who DESERVES to survive, the movie moves into a sort of game posture where two different power groups are struggling for control.
Circle Movie Philosophical Underpinnings
Ok, so most of you will skip this section and jump straight down to the Circle Ending, but you may be doing yourself a bit of a disservice if you haven’t spent at list a little bit of time under the eves of a College’s Philosophy department. And while many of these viewpoints are the most simplistic of Philosophical ponderings possible… they are still pretty critical to understanding this movie completely and helping you to come to final conclusion of what may have actually happened.
Theory #1 – The Circle and Nihilism
The King of Nihilism is none other than Nietzsche and then later on was Heidegger. Nietzsche is my own favorite post modern and Nihilist in that, if there is no God (which I disagree with, but if) then we should all be Nihilists. There really is no other option, and everything else is a trumped up fiction. But the basic viewpoint of Nihilism basically says that there is nothing beyond what we see. Not only that but that there is no reason for our being here. We were an accident of primordial soup, and you know what? That whole self awareness? That was a fluke too. Heidegger carried these thought constructs forward and was a fan favorite of Hitler. Which makes sense to me. But I don’t want to get too far down that particular beaten path.
As the movie was ending and we have our winner Eric standing exultantly, having tricked both the girl and the pregnant woman… when he hears the beeping again he yells out at the people in control of this experiment something to the effect of, “You know what? We are all fucking horrible people.” At this moment, the movie is the epitome of Nihilism. Everyone just dies. There is no point. This life experiment? It has zero purpose. We live. We die. And that’s that. Which reminds me of a quote from Nabokov (I mean, heck, we are already at 2,500 words, what’s a few more?) “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Yeah, that’s Nihilism. We are all going to die, so who cares if it’s a while dying on an alien ship while being tortured along the way? Nothing matters.
Theory #2 – The Circle and Determinism
Determinism is about as simple a philosophical theory as possible to understand. Basically it posits that everything happens for a reason, that nothing is an accident. We hear a Pastor speak about God’s will and how His purposes are always good in spite of our inability to understand them. And it was God that was ultimately in control. Determinism flies in the face of free will by stating that we are not in control, even what appears as freewill, is actually already predetermined and already known. There are a million different flavors of determinism and there are fullon doctoral dissertations on these variations. For example, William James’ essay on The Dilemma of Determinism appeared in 1884. And in it he coined the terms “soft determinism” (or compatibilism – man this is some rabbit hole I’m down right now), and “hard determinism” (strict determinsm… or better put, pre-determinism from the beginning of time).
If you look at the movie of Circle from the light of Hard Determinism it would state that God foreknew that aliens would come, and experiment on these humans, and that it is what it is because it was foreknown. Eric won because knew he would. Eric was a dork, because God knew he would be. Even my discussion of Eric’s dorkism is determined. We are locked in this path, and there is nothing we can do about it.
Theory #3 – The Circle and Plain Consequentialism or Benevolence
Plain Consequentialism basically just states that of all the things a person might do at any given moment, the morally right action is the one with the best overall consequences. (If there is no one best action because several actions are tied for best consequences, then of course any of those several actions would be right.) So, by sacrificing one’s self to save a young girl, it may very well be the best action over all. Right?
Another spin on this philosophy is that of Benevolence. Which was crafted by David Hume, and it states that all actions of a moral agent are motivated by character traits… whether they are virtuous or hostile. Hume would say that if you chose to donate money to a charity then your action was motivated by your virtuous character trait. And by making this action happen you have a very real impact on the receive of your action (giving food to a starving person will actually keep that person alive… and they will be impacted by that act.)
You can obviously see why either of these philosophical theories would be instrumental potentially in defining this theory. If people are capable of moral kindness, and these kindnesses impact others, should we not consider a benevolent response in deciding how to react in this scenario?
Theory #4 – Game Theory’s Prisoner’s Dilemma and Egoism
You know the prisoner’s dilemma. Two prisoners who committed a crime together are being held in separate cells. If they both stay silent they will both get one month in jail. If one of them snitches, the snitcher will go free, and the other will go to jail for a year. If no one snitches they both go to jail for 3 months. If they both snitch they both go to jail for 3 months. The question here is simple… as a prisoner in this situation, how do you game this scenario to gain the best possible outcome? (Want the best possible execution of the Prisoner’s Dilemma? Check out this play here which was discussed in detail on the podcast Radio Lab.)
Obviously, at the end of the movie, Eric makes a purely selfish manipulation of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. He gets the young girl to step off her space simultaneously with him (or so he says) and instead of stepping off he votes for the death of the pregnant woman. Eric basically plays the prisoner’s dilemma twice in the span of 2 seconds. The first time with girl, getting her to commit suicide, and the second time with the pregnant woman by voting her out… and thereby killing her. If for you this movie is most adequately understood from a purely game theory standpoint then this is the theory that best depicts the primer movers for all these actors.
And if you couple Game Theory with the most selfish act possible you have just crossed the streams with Egoism. Egoism is simple enough to understand. It basically states that there is no such thing as an altruistic thought or action. Even if I give food to a starving person, I am only doing it because I want to impress you. Or I like feeling good about myself. Right? Egoists are a truly savage beast of a person to deal with.
Circle Ending and My Favorite Theory
This movie has a very specific world view that it is espousing. It’s obviously a very nihilistic and selfish perspective of the planet. That everyone should do what is best for themselves and that they should be justified in so doing whatever it is that they do if it furthers their purposes. Right? This thought experiment shouts loudly and clearly that since there is nothing but the abyss awaiting us, do whatever the hell you want to do to get yours.
I remember meeting a true anarchist/nihlist in my first Philosophy class. We actually became fast friends because he believed that since there was no God, he should live every moment for his own benefit. It was a logically clean system. I believe the exact opposite, that since there was a God, I should live benevolently. And our relationship was a bi-polar match made in heaven. We actually got along swimmingly because we believed in a pure system. Most people in the class stood firmly in the middle. They believed there was no God, and yet, they shouldn’t steal… they should act benevolently… for some purpose I didn’t understand.
My Anarchist friend, if here today would applaud Eric and his actions that manipulated his way to the end. And I applaud him too. Minus the fact that I believe in God and that there is a reason and prime mover that supersedes simply winning this alien game of twister. My two favorite guys in this movie was the young emo guy that chose to commit suicide early on. He was the first to do so. He did what I would do if I was really put in that situation. And the second was the man who never cast a vote and never said a word. Both of these characters were the most morally correct perspectives of how to play this game in real life in a world where God exists and our actions carry import. So personally, I would side with Hume and Descartes that posit that our actions matter. That we all have a God shaped hole in our center that calls us to live benevolently and with a perspective beyond the moment.
But I would expect most people to go with would be that of the Game Theory explanation. That the person who is able to manipulate their way to the final tribal council is the winner come hell or high water. No? I’d love to hear your perspective on how the movie views the world, or how you view this exercise from your world view.
The Circle Epilogue and the Various UFOs
At the ending Eric is dumped into the Aqueduct, and he sees a number of others there too. Now, if you never lived near an aqueduct, you probably don’t know that you aren’t supposed to be in there. Sure, lots of movies and shows have car chases in aqueducts. But really? You can’t go into the aqueducts without getting in trouble. To have a stash of people just wandering around there makes zero sense. I would argue that all those people we see at the end are winners of their games. I even initially noticed a pregnant woman, and wondered if it was our pregnant woman. Which would imply that everyone in that ‘game’ survived, and that it was just one big psychological experiment.
But when I looked closer I noticed that the pregnant woman was not the same one. Which is a big deal from an explanation standpoint. Because it means that everyone really did in fact die. That it wasn’t a ruse. And that Eric had been complicit (no, not complicit but directly responsible!) in the deaths of 49 other people. Right?
If I am correct… what happened was this. Thousands, even millions, of people were abducted and made to play this game. When the game finished and there was one person left standing they were teleported back to earth to consider what it was that they had done. Right? And if the scale of the game was world wide, what would be left on planet earth would be 1/50th of the people… or 140 million people. And those 140 million people would be some of the worst, most egotistical people ever. 140 million people with the blood of almost 7 billion people on their hands.
And that is the larger picture that the movie creators want to posit. That we are all egoists. That we only should do what is right for our own best interest. That we should lie. Swindle. Steal. Whatever it takes to come out on top. No?
Personally I loved this movie. The acting was sparse. The writing was merely OK. But the theories at work underneath the surface here are fantastic. Just gorgeous. How would you play the game if you were forced to play? How do you think the creators of the movie believed the world should act if put in this position? Do you have one theory that really resounds for you? Or heck, bring your own philosophical theory to the table! There are a million to choose from. I literally cut out 5 more that I’d written out fully. But at 4,000 words now, I’m thinking this write up needs to stop and turn it over to you guys! I want to hear from you now.