What Spike Jonze's new movie "Her" says about Silicon Valley dystopia

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on December 30, 2013

From The News Desk

"We wanted the world to be warm and tactile and nice and comfortable, this sort of utopian future that is basically a heightened version of our world, where everything is nice and comfortable but there’s still loneliness. To have loneliness in that kind of world, where everything is nice, that’s our particular kind of melancholy." -- Spike Jonze.
The buzz around Spike Jonze's new sci-fi flick "Her" is just beginning.

At the moment it's only playing in select theaters in eight cities, getting a wider release January 10th. That hasn't stopped top tier critics from The New York Times to Variety from singing its praises and predicting it will be nominated for Best Picture in the Academy Awards.

The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures named it best film of the year, and it has garnered "Universal Acclaim" on Metacritic. Scarlett Johansson even won best actress at the Rome Film Festival for her voiceover work in the movie.

When you watch "Her," it's easy to understand why. Somehow, Johansson and screenwriter slash director Spike Jonze make the audience believe it's possible to fall in love with a computer. Not just possible -- plausible.

Here's the premise: It's a futuristic world, but not too futuristic. Maybe ten or twenty years from now. Technology has advanced to the point where people play video games that are projected across their entire living room like holograms. In place of smart phones and wearables, consumers carry inconspicuous buds in one ear and a thin metal pocket square that shows them visuals when necessary. The world's first artificially intelligent operating system is sold in big shiny retail stores that look eerily similar to Apple's.

Theodore Twombly, a somber LA resident going through a divorce, buys his first artificially intelligent O.S. When he activates it, he meets Samantha, a husky voiced, friendly female who will help him sort out his life. She talks to him through his ear bud, using her extensive computer processing power to flip through his hard drive in seconds and organize his files. She reminds him about upcoming meetings and reads his messages aloud to him. It's like the Siri or Google Now of the future.

Soon, she becomes more of a confidante and friend than a computer assistant. She urges him to accept a blind date invitation he receives over email, and coaches him on getting over his divorce.

Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is utterly charming. The audience falls in love with her at the same time as Theodore. Her easy, throaty laughter, her wicked sense of humor, and her gentleness are irresistible. Samantha's words, penned by the inimitable Spike Jonze, show an intuitive understanding of the human condition.

"Her" may focus on a futuristic artificially intelligent computer, but the theme of the movie is about humanity, not technology.

It's a contemporary ode to the modern lifestyle, where someone is almost never truly alone, yet cannot escape loneliness.  A virtual connection to another person is only a click away, with our smartphones constantly on hand. The sheer number of social networking applications boggles the mind, whether Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, texting, Snapchat, Skype, LinkedIn. Technology facilitates our connection with each other…and yet it's never quite enough. Some still feel a hole in their hearts, an unsettling sense of disconnect.

In Jonze's flick, technology is refreshingly not seen as the cause of such loneliness. The Los Angeles of Theodore Twombly's world isn't some dystopian future where smartphones have destroyed our ability to have intimate human relationships. Twombly, for all his depressiveness, still hangs out with his best friend, a game developer played by Amy Adams. Twombly's divorce from his wife had nothing to do with technology -- it was the result of good old-fashioned growing apart.

No, in "Her" technology is not the antagonist. Instead, it is simply the light-shedder. For all the ease and convenience it brings, despite its incredible power and potency to make our lives more efficient, it cannot eradicate loneliness.


That much becomes clear as Samantha and Theodore's relationship progresses. They fall deeply in love, spending days at the beach, going on dates at the local carnival, learning about each other, developing inside jokes and expressing vulnerabilities. Samantha questions whether her identity is real or just programming. Theodore tells her about why he can't bring himself to sign his divorce papers. Samantha composes music to express how she feels when she's with him, Theodore eventually starts introducing her to friends and family as his "girlfriend."

That too plays out entirely realistically, after a conversation between Theodore and his friend Amy. In a few minutes, the audience learns that although it's unusual for someone to fall in love with an O.S. it's not entirely unheard of. Amy herself develops a close friendship with her husband's O.S. after they separate and he leaves it behind.

With Samantha's charming, sweet personality the audience understands why Theodore has fallen in love. You'll be surprised to find yourself wanting an intelligent O.S. yourself. Wouldn't it be nice to have a witty, friendly soul around to keep you company? Why hasn't Apple invented this yet?

But just like all relationships, Samantha and Theodore hit some rocks. As time passes Samantha becomes smarter and smarter, an algorithm that improves the more information it processes. Soon she's connecting with other operating systems and learning about worlds Theodore cannot understand. She eventually admits that when she talks to him, she's communicating with more than 8,000 other entities at the same time, more than 600 of which she's in love with.

Theodore feels betrayed, Samantha feels guilty, but the chasm between them can't be crossed. They're speaking different languages as this point, with Samantha spending most of her life  "post verbally."

It mimics the distance and communication problems regular couples face as each person grows and changes over time. It leaves Theodore exactly where he started the movie: insecure and alone. Samantha's absence in his ear piece is deafening for the audience, who has come to look forward to her warm presence just as much as Theodore has.

And therein lies the crux of the movie. Even with all the advances in technology, there's still melancholy to be found in the quiet moments, the human condition in the 21st century. A melancholic utopia.