Last month, in Oakland, a group of protesters smashed the window of a Google bus, one of the private shuttles that takes employees from their overpriced homes in San Francisco to their high paying jobs at Google’s Mountain View “campus” 40 miles away in Santa Clara County. While I appreciated the methods — there’s never a bad way to terrorize gentrifiers — I was sceptical of the goal. Trying to keep San Francisco open to the working class struck me as being an exercise in futility.
After seeing “Her,” the latest film by Spike Jonze, however, I’ve changed my mind. Not only must the Google bus protests go on, they need to become even more militant. Try to imagine a world where sex is a bit like masturbating to a TED talk. Then gather your rocks, buy some eggs, smash some windows, and slash as many tires as you can before you get arrested. The scum that rides the Google buses must being driven out of San Francisco by any means necessary.
Her shows us the world that the digital oligarchs at Google and Apple will create if they’re not stopped. Set in Los Angeles at an unnamed time — let’s use that old science fiction cliché “in not too distant future” — there is no working class. There are no poor people, and no ugly people. There aren’t a lot of particularly beautiful people either. There are, of course, quite a few good looking people, but nobody who glows with an excess of life, nobody with any real passion or fire. Even though Her is technically a love story, and even though it stars attractive, A-list actresses like Roony Mara and Amy Adams, the only thing that really inspires us is property, especially the exquisite skyline of Los Angeles, digitally altered to look a bit like Shanghai, and the hero’s apartment, which hangs over the glittering metropolis like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear.
The hero, a man named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix may give us a hint as to where the working class went. Perhaps they all joined the meritocracy. A former writer at the LA Weekly, Twombly now works for a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com, where he gets paid to be a professional Cyrano, composing love notes for people who, we can assume, lack the requisite literary skill to do it themselves. Twombly is not a programmer or a digital guru, and the kind of writing he does stuck me as the kind of work they’d farm out to low paid freelancers at content mills like Demand Media rather than to high powered copywriters like Don Draper. But he lives in a beautiful condominium. He never lacks for money. He travels whenever he wants. All of his friends seem to be Ivy League professionals. His ex-wife has a PHD. His blind date went to Harvard, and the receptionist at Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com is dating a lawyer. We are, in other words, deeply embedded in the American meritocracy. If anybody in Twombly’s world got anything less than a perfect score on their SATs, I’d be surprised.
Financial success notwithstanding, Twombly is an unhappy man. With his gift of gab and nice guy charm, he never lacks for female attention, but he’s still pining for his ex-wife, Roony Mara. A blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde goes bad after she reveals herself to be vindictive and emotionally needy. A newly divorced friend, a game designer played by Amy Adams, comes off like a potential soul mate, but there’s little or no sexual chemistry. Theodore Twombly seems destined to end up as a lonely, celibate old bachelor, his sex life confined to cyber sex and masturbation.
Whether or not Twombly, at any time, ever engages in anything more than cybersex and masturbation is the question Her poses. Her’s version of Los Angeles feels like a city that could actually exist. It’s been cleaned up a bit and whatever government they have has obviously spent quite a bit of money for public transportation — we never see anybody drive a car — but we can still imagine living there. Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, has advanced to the point where an operating system can act like a human being. A new system, OS1, designed by a company named Element Software, can feel emotion, even evolve intellectually. After Twombly downloads OS1 onto his smart phone, and it reveals itself to be the voice and personality of Scarlett Johansson, he quickly falls in love. It’s fun to speculate what would have happened had Samantha, the name Twombly’s copy of OS1 gives to “her” self, had had the voice and personality of Bill Gates or Richard Stallman, but that’s another, and probably better movie.
Scarlett Johansson is a talented actress. Without a single visual, she establishes a coherent personality, intelligent yet sexy, gentle yet domineering. Part administrative assistant, part second wife, part nanny, she seduces Twombly with the tone of her voice, and, more importantly, with her words, turning the tables on the professional love letter writer, wrapping him around her little digital finger before he’s even validated the software online. Johansson is so good, in fact, that there are negative reviews of Her on the Internet by “intersectional” feminists complaining they made Samantha too beautiful and too “cisgender.” She’s a collection of bits and bytes you fools. Then again, perhaps the “intersectional” feminists are onto something.
Samantha never quite works for me as a machine. She seems a lot more like a woman on the other end of a cell phone. I interact with people all the time on the Internet I never plan to meet. It doesn’t make them machines. The concept isn’t even particularly novel. Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson had a friendship for decades, even though they never met. They wrote letters. Needless to say, Twomby and Samantha are no Emily Dickinson or Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Indeed, while we’re told, repeatedly, that Twombly is a great poet — Samantha collects a group of his best love letters and sends them into a publisher — he comes off more like a talented writer of Hallmark cards. Romantic dialog in Her is a collection of insipid platitudes. “You’re sweet” or “oh you’re amazing” is about the best we’re going to get. The banal language carries over into his “relationship” with Samantha. Phoenix is a decent physical actor. When he thinks Samantha has cut him off for good, he manages to bumble convincingly enough through the lobby of an office building to demonstrate that he’s upset. But don’t expect any real despair.
“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest as long as I am living. You said I killed you–haunt me then. The murdered do haunt their murderers. I believe–I know that ghosts have wandered the earth. Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad. Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! It is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!” in the bland world of Her would probably just be labeled “inappropriate.”
Spike Jonze seems to have turned 30-year-olds into retirees, people who not only lack bodies, but who lack any desire for one. If the publisher Samantha sends the collection of Twombly’s love notes immediately decides to publish them as a book, then it has less to do with Twombly’s talent than the fact that the Los Angeles of Her has become so colorless and without passion that any man who can sling phrases like “you will always be my friend as well as my lover” is never going to want for admirers. Samantha is just as bland. Sure, we all know it’s Scarlett Johansson, but she comes off more like just another sexless denizen of the meritocracy. When she “evolves” beyond her “relationship” with Twombly — it has something to do with hanging out with other operating systems and reading Alan Watts — it feels perfectly natural. Samantha, like any soccer mom who has gotten the kids off to school, has decided that her pilates classes and her “spirituality” come before hopping into the sack with her husband, who’s probably at work anyway.
That is, perhaps, the point. Her is a dystopia, a gentle dystopia along the lines of Brave New World rather than a savage surveillance and torture state like the Oceania of 1984, but a dystopia nonetheless. There may be no poverty in the Los Angeles of the future — either that or they just manage to keep the Bangladeshis who make the clothes and the Chinese workers at Foxconn who make the smartphones well hidden — but it’s still a horrifying reality. Element software has designed an operating system that can charm any man out of his shorts right down into a masturbatory passivity. Whatever happened to the debate about the NSA and the fourth amendment? There may be no “big brother,” no malevolent machines running the matrix. There may be no Agent Smith or Skynet, but there’s no Winston Smith, no Julia, no Neo, no Trinity, let alone a Cathy or a Heathcliff, either.
What happens at the end? Well, we really don’t care. Theodore Twombly is a slave who never shows any sign that he wants to be anything more than a slave. Her is at least an hour too long. It’s a clever setup, but it has nowhere to go. After awhile, it feels like sitting on a Google bus. I kept hoping some dirty hippies would break one of the windows with a rock. I stayed with Her to the end just to see if Spike Jonze figures out a way to blow it all up, or, at the very least, to give us a satisfying resolution, but he doesn’t. The narrative isn’t resolved so much as it peters out. Jonze can’t quite figure out how to end it so he bores us to death, trying to put us in a state of mind where we’re too afraid of not “getting it” to speak up. Would I recommend Her? Sure. Go see what all the fuss is about. Would I watch it again? Oh hell no.