Do we get the dystopia that we deserve?
While “Her” was largely billed as an offbeat romance (God, help us), at its heart it’s the story of a near future nearly as terrifying as the one that features Skynet and The Terminator, one that seems more than plausible. Indeed, in its version of a future Los Angeles, it’s almost as chilling as Blade Runner’s.
It’s a world where it becomes far too easy to have little or no human interaction, where even emotions can be simulated. 3-D virtual entertainment makes your home—or your living unit, if you prefer—as vivid as going outside. Your phone is your girlfriend. Companies specialize in manufactured sincerity. (Not every writer views the film this way; technologists, unsurprisingly, see it as a form of utopia.)
To his credit, the director, Spike Jonze, never stops the movie to point any of this out, so the effect is almost immersive and unnoticed. Everything has a soft edge, even the colors are inoffensive. This version of the future seems to have eradicated—or at least off-shored—poverty, struggle, blight, mini-malls, and, as many critics have noticed, minorities.
More time is available for exploring leisure on your own, and that’s where the trouble begins. Stalled at human interaction, Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) explores the possibility of a relationship with an intelligent operating system (Scarlett Johanssen)—and not in the icky David Cronenberg way. Jonze initially paints this as both an old-fashioned and more highly evolved pairing, a meeting of mind more than body. Theodore comes out of his shell, learns to love life again—and then poisons the relationship when his insecurities surface. That’s the film’s black-comic punchline: We can’t stand it when our partner has the upper hand, even if our partner is a phone.
Quiz: How is this different than the scene in Titanic?
Still, in my viewing, it’s yet another parable about humans becoming eclipsed by technology—and in the end, we’re only spared from a Skynet or Matrix-style future by the whims of our creations. Ironically, what might make it seem less threatening than those possible outcomes is the ubiquitousness of the modern phone. Suggesting we could become subservient to them is like worrying your beagle could order a pizza.
Yet consider how much these devices have already profoundly altered human interaction. I remember returning to DC in 2004 after spending more than a year in a small town out west and thinking that released mental patients were roaming the streets. People seemed to be talking to themselves. Only later did I notice the earpieces. Now, walk into any bar or restaurant and the majority of the patrons are staring at the softly-lit screens of their phones, not at each other. It is no longer considered rude to wear headphones in interpersonal situations. Not to mention the role phones have played in The Great Leveler, the phenomenon that is social media.
This isn’t meant to be some front-porch tirade about technology—just a gentle warning that it becomes tempting to see it as a solution to everything, even something as basic as a kiss or a backrub. “Her” is very much a film of the moment—and its benign view of artificial intelligence suggests that we are a society that loves its toys more than ever.
We had a much more ambivalent view of technology in the apocalyptic-minded 70s. Tech created Soylent Green, which, as you well know by now, is people. Tech gave rise to the Planet of the Apes. It built murderous robotic cowboys and gorgeous female supplicants. It gave rise to hideous mutant populations. It led to the ultraviolence. It brought on a murderous form of roller derby. (It only seems like Charlton Heston was in all these movies; he wasn’t.)
Logan’s Run is another tale of tech gone amok. And it was a particular favorite of my young self (It is quite possible it was the first movie in which I saw a naked female, although I can’t swear to it.) The film, which, I must admit now, isn’t all that great, was an adaptation of a sci-fi novel that I must have read 50 times as a kid—and which was an unapologetic and fear-mongering response to the Youth Movement and the threat of the growing global population. In the book, a computer-controlled society murders all citizens once they’re 21.
The movie pushes that death age to 30, and the parallels to Her are there if you look for them. Sex can be freely obtained by “beaming” partners in from other living units. Humans seem almost completely dedicated to their own pleasure—and they’re shielded from the toxic, dangerous outside world by domes. They’re content to let a central computer run everything, a program that creates the illusion that those who chose to commit suicide will be reincarnated. It’s a social compact—citizens of the domed cities live lives free of need or want, as long as they agree to die on time. If we turn our society over to an intelligent operating system, this is the world it might create.
Despite the rather dated special effects (unfortunately for the movie, Star Wars came out a year later, so Logan’s Run is destined to be considered in the same vein as the last ballpark built before Camden Yards.), it builds to a credible thriller as Logan (Michael York) seeks to escape his dialed-up destiny. The film is the story of what happens once we realize that we’re being oppressed by the very thing we thought we couldn’t live without.
Both Her and Logan’s Run end on similar notes, in fact, with its protagonists staring wide-eyed at the natural world—at long last unshackled. The difference is that the characters in the more recent film never felt the chains in the first place.
BONUS: Because we have to–