The intriguing sci-fi horror flick “Circle,” which world premiered at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival on May 28, benefits from an interesting premise that incessantly ratchets up the tension, but suffers some minor setbacks that prevent it from true cult greatness.
In short: Fifty strangers – from various walks of life – find themselves trapped in a circle and unable to escape a machine that systematically kills one of them every two minutes. They soon realize the victims are not chosen at random — the ever-dwindling group votes on who will be the next victim. (watch the trailer)
“Circle” wastes no time throwing its characters into a series of increasingly impossible choices and immediately establishes the movie’s rules. This economical storytelling allows the movie to quickly get through the structural “what is going on!?” exposition out of the way, freeing up the rest of the movie for its real dramatic conflict.
The relentless “machine-of-death” premise effectively sets up the real dramatic tension of “Circle” — this is less about man-versus-death-machine and more a “man-versus-man” thriller. The origin or reasoning behind the machine almost becomes incidental — but in the best way possible: it allows the circle of characters to play out a timeless debate of ethics versus morals versus logic. This is a 90-minute thought exercise in group dynamics.
“Circle” allows its characters to effectively argue and debate over which of the strangers should be killed next – and who should be spared as long as possible. Like all good sci-fi, this flick merely uses its science fiction elements to set up the real core of this story: which is a character-driven plot with the highest stakes possible.
While the premise is noteworthy, this film does suffer some lackluster production value-related setbacks. This indie flick features some poor acting performances, rendering some of the core characters as broad or over-the-top. The number of dynamic, rich characters are vastly outnumbered by an army of caricatures, such as the honorable soldier or elitist banker. The sheer volume of one-dimensional characters is a major problem for such a character-driven thriller.
The characters also get pretty flippant and nonchalant about their dire situation pretty quickly — to the point that several of the murders are almost not acknowledged at all. This only makes the characters seem callous (ie, more difficult to care about) and erodes the dire life-and-death stakes. If the characters trapped in the circle barely notice or care when one of their own is cut down, then it becomes difficult for the audience to care to become invested.
Final verdict: “Circle” benefits from a riveting premise that pits its characters against one another in a desperate bid for survival. But it also receives numerous deductions for some execution shortcomings that that leave “Circle” feeling more like a SyFy Channel movie at times than a polished and emotionally effective indie sci-fi gem.
This film screened at the 41st Seattle International Film Festival and is not yet rated. To check out a YouTube playlist with dozens of trailers of movies screening at SIFF 2015, click here.