When Jigsaw, villain of the Saw franchise, uttered those now infamous words, “Want to play a game?” he articulated a particular sub-genre of the horror film that could aptly be called “game horror.” In this sub-genre, a group of seemingly random people are brought together by some unknown person or entity and forced to play a not-very-fun “game.” Sometimes the rules are made very clear; sometimes the players have to figure them out as they go along. Sometimes the game really is arbitrary and the players random; sometimes, though, the players are there for a reason—one they must figure out if they want to survive.
“Game horror” originated in 1939 with Agatha Christie’s mystery novel, And Then There Were None (made into a very good film, directed by René Clair, in 1945), in which ten people are invited to an island and are, one by one, accused by their absent host of the crime of murder. The host uses a gramophone record to lay out his guests’ crimes—a direct antecedent of Jigsaw’s recorded messages to the “players” in his games. Needless to say, in And Then There Were None, as in Saw, punishment ensues.
Like much horror, game horror also has roots in The Twilight Zone, specifically the 1961 episode, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (season 3), in which five characters wake up in a large metal cylinder and have to try to find a way out before they starve to death. This plot anticipates the many subsequent films (Cube, Saw, and Circle) in which characters wake up in a strange place, disoriented, and with no memory of how they got there.
Game horror appears to be undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment, and as crucial as the Saw franchise obviously is in this flourishing, it actually began before Saw with the provocative Canadian Cube trilogy: Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1997), Cube 2: Hypercube (Andrzej Sekulla), and Cube Zero (Ernie Barbarash, 2004). Other notable instances include Fermat’s Room (Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena, 2007), The Exam (Stuart Hazeldine, 2009), Would You Rather? (David Guy Levy, 2012), reviewed by Gwen here, and the upcoming Truth or Dare (Jessica Cameron).
The latest entry in the “game horror” sub-genre is the fascinating recent release, Circle (2015), directed by Aaron Hann and Mario Miscione (and currently streaming on Netflix).
Circle is as minimalist in its setting as The Twilight Zone’s “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” and must certainly have been in part inspired by the iconic episode. Fifty people awaken in a circular black room and soon figure out that the force that strikes one of them dead every two minutes is not random: they are choosing who dies next. As soon as they realize they have some control, they begin to debate who should die next. The film is about these choices, as the characters execute each other, one by one, until only one is left standing.
The film raises interesting ethical questions about what we value. The first decision the characters make, and it goes unchallenged, is that the elderly—that is, those in their sixties and seventies—should be the first to go. The almost self-evident truism that the elderly should die first only gets challenged when the younger characters start talking about those in their early fifties as “old.” At that point, the age criterion is angrily contested.
Forced by the death that comes inexorably every two minutes to choose who lives and dies, the characters frantically debate illness and disability, illegal immigration, racism, homosexuality, and childlessness. Fairly early on the notion of character or moral worth intrudes (“who deserves to live?”) and get entangled with issues of race, sexuality, and career choice.
Eventually, as the number of characters thins out, arguments over identity politics and lifestyle fade and a stark choice crystallizes: do you put your own survival first? Or do you privilege a selfless ideal, ensuring the continuation of the human race by saving either the one young child or the one pregnant woman? The survivors remain divided—about half opting for their own survival and about half putting first what they believe to be the greater good. By the end, this dilemma is starkly drawn, and the character who embodies the winning choice walks away. Which one do you think it is?
Given that Hann and Miscione made the conscious decision to start with fifty characters, I wonder whether they were referencing Garrett Hardin’s famous 1974 Psychology Today essay, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor.”[i] Hardin imagines the wealthy nations of the planet as a lifeboat with fifty people on board. The boat has ten more seats: to let in any more people than that would swamp the boat and drown them all. Yet the boat floats in a sea of hundreds of desperate drowning people (the poor nations), all demanding a seat in the boat. “Does everyone on earth have an equal right to an equal share of its resources?” Hardin asks. His answer, given population growth and the planet’s limited resources, is no. Equality and an abstract “justice for all” must give way to the necessity that some survive.
The conceit of Circle brilliantly imagines this problem, I think, as it depicts the zero-sum game of survival. Indeed, Circle’s intervention into “game horror” is in the way it moves beyond questions about merely personal sins (which is where the Saw franchise largely stays). It challenges us to think about the larger question Hardin raises: is the nation, the globe, best imagined as a lifeboat? Can only some thrive and survive? When illegal immigration is front and center in US election politics and refugees pour into Europe, Circle seems utterly timely.
Circle draws you in (I really couldn’t stop watching), makes you consider these questions, ask yourself what you believe. At times I felt the debates were too frantic, too short—but, in a way, that’s the film’s point. Do we really resolve questions of survival by endless debating issues of identity and worth, or is it, in the end, more instinctive than that?
Circle is a thought-provoking and sometimes chilling film—and definitely worth watching.