Category Archives: dystopian

The Circle: Social Media and the End of Privacy

The Circle, a Netflix original movie, will appeal to fans of the UK series Black Mirror. Each episode of that series was a dark, dystopian look at modern technology and how things that seem to be making life better also have truly sinister consequences. In the case of The Circle, the issues examined are privacy and the prospect of a completely transparent society where all of our actions can be viewed by the public at all times.

The Circle has a well-known and high-quality cast, especially for a movie without a theatrical release. Emma Watson stars as Mae, a young woman who gets an entry level job at a company that’s sort of a combination of Apple, Google, and Facebook. Tom Hanks is the charismatic and megalomaniacal Steve Jobs-type cult figure who runs the company known as The Circle. Also appearing are Bill Paxton and Karen Gillan, known for her role in Dr. Who.

At first, The Circle evokes familiar images of ultra-hip work environments such as the Google Campus. The setting is Sunnyvale, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. The campus has the kind of amenities normally associated with a cruise ship. At the same time, the atmosphere is eerily cultlike and employees are all but compelled to socialize constantly, weekends included, and report all of their doings on The Circe’s own social media site.

Mae, at first skeptical of the company’s all-pervasive technology (which includes a mini-camera that can take in entire scenes without being noticed, supposedly to help expose abuses of power) but who is gradually drawn into the mystique. For one thing, her father is suffering from MS and the company helps him with its cutting edge medical technology. Then, she impulsively goes out in a kayak late at night and almost drowns -thanks to The Circle’s cameras, however, she is observed and saved. Then she agrees to participate in an experiment where her life is broadcast 24/7 – sort of like a Truman Show, only in this case the star/victim knows she’s being filmed all the time.

We can question the realism of The Circle -especially the idea that someone like Mae could so quickly go from “guppy” (the company’s cutesy name for new employees) to one of its most powerful and influential spokespeople in a matter of weeks. There are also some actions taken by The Circle that would most likely have been prevented by the company’s legal team to avoid lawsuits and criminal prosecution.

As with Black Mirror, however, it’s best to view the movie as a kind of sci-fi thought experiment and parable rather than hold it to a strict standard of realism. The Circle raises fascinating questions about two opposing values: the right to privacy vs. the benefits of a completely transparent society. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and darkly ironic, which leaves the fundamental questions open-ended.

Radio Free Albemuth: Philip K. Dick’s Prophetic Dystopia

The novels of Philip K. Dick are not easy to translate into film, but Radio Free Albemuth, directed by John Alan Simon, does a good job at conveying some of the cult novelist’s more far out (yet far from implausible) ideas. Whereas Richard Linkater’s Through A Scanner Darkly was a mostly animated, surreal movie where the line between reality and hallucination was always on the verge of collapsing, Radio Free Albemuth is closer to being a conventional science fiction film. In fact, the movie has a deliberately retro feel to it, as it depicts an alternative late 20th century America that has too many similarities with the actual 2014 America for comfort.

The story follows a record store employee named Nick Brady (Jonathan Scarfe) who starts to receive mystical visions from a mysterious source called VALIS. He and his writer friend Phil (Shea Whigham, playing author Dick himself) try to unravel a mysterious series of events that involve interrogations at the hands of stormtrooper-like government agents and a radical organization plotting to overthrow the fascist government.

Radio Free Albemuth portrays a low tech, pre-Internet America that feels even earlier than the 1980s. The cultural climate is more like the 1950s and the enforced conformity, with the ever present threat of being hauled in for your political beliefs recalls McCarthyism, with some Orwell thrown in. It is, however, unsettling to note that, while the technology is retro, the proto-fascist political rhetoric spouted by President Fremont has an all too contemporary ring.

The film is a bit confusing when it comes to the time frame and how it relates to historical events. Dick wrote the novel in 1976 and it was published after his death in 1985 In the book and film, the Soviet Union has collapsed and America is run by the right wing President Fremont (Scott Wilson), who has been in power for 15 years. So Dick foresaw the end of the Soviet Union some 20 years before it actually happened. It’s worth noting that in the late 1970s, when Dick wrote the novel, the Soviet empire hardly seemed to be falling apart and the Patriot Act was still far in the future.

Dick’s vision can be seen as prophetic in a number of ways. Not only did he foresee the impending end of the Soviet Union, but his pre-9/11 foresight that the U.S. government would use the threat of terrorism as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties was eerily prophetic as well.

Singer Alanis Morissette provides the musical talent for the story as Sylvia, a woman who also has visions and whose family is connected to that of Fremont in a mysterious way. One of the subplots involves inserting a subversive revolutionary message within a pop song.

Those not familiar with Dick, or with conspiracy theories and/or metaphysical ideas regarding parallel realities might find this material inaccessible and farfetched. The film also turns rather dark towards the end. Whereas it starts out with Brady being hopeful at accessing a higher intelligence, gradually the power of the Orwellian state overshadow the other elements. While Dick’s visions are metaphysical and hopeful on the one hand, they definitely tend towards the dystopian as well.

Radio Free Albemuth is certainly full of interesting ideas about consciousness, metaphysics, politics and what it might take to become free in the face of widespread oppression. These are themes that have universal relevance.

Radio Free Albemuth is currently available on Netflix Streaming.