Dystopias are supposed to serve as cautionary tales. In 1984 and Brave New World, respectively, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley borrowed the tropes and rhythms of fiction to build terrifying worlds that showed us where we could be headed if we weren’t careful. With the new independent animated film Silver Circle, director Pasha Roberts tries to continue that soothsaying tradition. He’s got all the inspiration, but his execution falls embarrassingly flat: An ill-conceived libertarian nightmare, Silver Circle fails hilariously on every conceivable level.
Set six years into the future, Silver Circle imagines a Washington, D.C. where hyperinflation is the norm and the Federal Reserve employs its own police force. In the opening scene, Fed cops beat up civilians and shoot one when it looks like he’s drawing a weapon; afterward, the government-controlled news spins the story. The seemingly only decent guy around is Jay (De’Lon Grant), an arson investigator for the Treasury Department (huh?). Jay looks into a series of explosions in a D.C. suburb, and the clues lead him to Zoe (Philana Mia), a secretary in a real-estate office. Jay knows she’s hiding a big secret, but that does not stop him from sleeping with her. Turns out Zoe moonlights as part of an underground movement that’s plotting to put America on a silver standard. When Federal Reserve Chairman Victor Brandt (Peter Berkrot) finds out Jay’s involvement with Zoe, Jay must choose between order and his conscience.
Most writers and filmmakers have the good sense to begin with an interesting conceit and let details grow from it. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, for example, no one cares about culture now that it’s impossible to conceive a child, so one man collects masterpieces because no one else will. Roberts does the reverse: He invents details and tries to cram them into his world. Rather than develop a semiplausible explanation of his vision, Roberts comes up with this narrative: After pot is legalized in 2016, gold and silver are outlawed, which causes inflation. Roberts focuses on the result (outlawing precious metals), but he offers no causal relationship between that and marijuana legalization, even if the screenplay wishes there is one. Furthermore, there’s no explanation of how the Fed chairman transforms into a neo-fascist criminal mastermind. Despite the script’s obsession with silver and the money supply, it’s telling that no character mentions anything related to economics. If Roberts had stuck to the erosion of basic civil liberties—-an actual growing concern—-maybe he’d have fodder for a conspiratorial thriller, but his taste for extremist ideology doesn’t seem to sprout from reality.
As far as its animation goes, Silver Circles is relentlessly amateurish. The characters belong in a PlayStation 2 discount bin, not a feature film; their faces are mostly expressionless—-incapable of demonstrating anger or love—-so it’s downright creepy when Jay and Zoe make out. The backgrounds are all boxy and without much detail, and there are moments where the image breaks down into a distortion of pixels. Animation does not always have to be polished like Pixar; filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day is one of last year’s best films, and it’s mostly pencil doodles. Financial and artistic constraints can force unexpected creativity, but Roberts, it seems, doesn’t have the right instincts to help him transcend or utilize his limitations.
Held up to the film’s animation and clunky premise, the actors’ voice work seems competent. Most of the actors have few credits to their name, and their line deliveries service the story without excessive emoting. In an important scene where Jay loses someone meaningful to him, Grant downplays his grief instead of going for melodrama; as the Fed chairman, Berkrot is like a low-rent villain from Grand Theft Auto, but at least his sleaziness is palpable. Mia is the only one who has trouble selling her character, which is no surprise since Roberts and screenwriter Steven Schwartz cannot decide whether she’s a noir temptress or a plucky girl next door (who also happens to be a terrorist).
Whoops, did I say “terrorist”? Roberts would probably object to how I describe Zoe and the other “subversives,” but consider what happens in the climax: In an act of “freedom,” they blow up the Federal Reserve and plant evidence on the chairman. That’s not revolutionary; it’s amoral, not to mention pretty lazily written. The only good news is that Silver Circle will never change anyone’s mind about government, the Federal Reserve, or the debt crisis. It might appeal to Ron Paul fans, but I’m sure they’ll agree V for Vendetta is better.