Some of the most acclaimed movies in history originally started as plays. Doubt, Barefoot in the Park, and Casablanca all began on stage. The intimacy of a live performance can seep onto the screen, creating an unforgettable tone. Science fiction plays are few and far between, though one remarkable 2015 movie manages to capture a similar mood by drawing on some unexpected — but familiar — source material.
Circle is a 2015 indie film with a very simple premise — fifty people wake up in a room after an alien invasion. They're all standing in designated circles on the floor. Someone tries to step out of their circle and they're killed with a laser originating from an orb in the center of the room. After two minutes, another person is killed.
Slowly, the remaining people realize by moving their hands they can vote for who gets killed. Then, the tactics begin. With only two minutes in between killings, the group quickly decides to sacrifice to oldest people first in order to buy time, but that quickly runs out and their priorities are tested.
Circle feels like watching a play, a feeling that's increasingly foreign during a pandemic. The action all happens in real time, so over the course of the 87 minutes, 49 people are killed (there are a couple outside the two-minute restraints due to ties and sacrifices.) Tensions rise, alliances are made, and it all feels a lot like a Survivor speed-run, including a last-minute ending twist that will truly blindside you.
The film was inspired by Twelve Angry Men, the teleplay that was later adapted into a classic film and a stage play. That Old Hollywood feel ripples throughout, as questions of ethics and humanity are raised left and right. As a passive observer, it almost feels like you are part of this circle. As the participants become more and more acclimated to the constant murder, so do you, and it's not a nice feeling.
The set is simple, the actors all unknown to increase their anonymity, and the special effects rudimentary but believable. Circle is a testament that all you need for a psychological thriller are two people in a room. With each death, the conflict gets more and more intimate, and more and more ambitious.
Although we never see the aliens that form the threat to the human race, they're still terrifying because they managed to do the most deadly thing possible — turn people against each other. Because of that, humanity as we know it ends up decimated. It's a bit of an on-the-nose metaphor, but together it's a circus trick of creating suspense with only words and a laser.
Circle is now streaming on Netflix in the U.S.