Is the Future of ‘Her’ Utopian or Dystopian?

By  · Published on January 16th, 2014

There are two things that are probably beyond contestation about Spike Jonze’s Her:

  1. It’s a critical darling (as evidenced by its many rave reviews, its presence on end-of-year lists, and its continued haul of awards season recognition), and
  2. It has an immersive, thoroughly realized vision of an unspecified near-future. It’s hard to think of a science-fiction movie in recent memory as invested as Her in what the future will look like, feel like, dress like, and what effects this will have on something as intrinsic and everyday as human relationships.

But beyond these two points, there is much to be found that’s worth debating in Jonze’s film. Her diverts from science-fiction’s tradition of painting an overtly dystopic future of constant surveillance and centralized control familiar to any Philip H. Dick fan, yet as sleek, inviting, and even beautiful as the film’s immaculate surfaces and evolving technologies are, there seems to be an insidious coldness and emptiness that lies beneath the surface, a sense that something is lost between the glass walls and mobile devices that separate people in Jonze’s Los Angeles.

To ask whether Jonze’s film is utopian or dystopian is to inevitably invite the answer that it’s “neither.” But we want to hear what you think and how you responded to this film’s vision of the near future: does it invest hope in new, never-before-conceivable opportunities in humanity’s relationship to technology, or does it reveal what we most feared, that technology provides an ultimately ill-fitting substitute for genuine human interaction?

Two great pieces published yesterday demonstrate the diverse array of possible reactions to a film like Her. Writing for Wired, Kyle Vanhemert states about the portending effects the film will have on future technologies and designs,

“After poring over the work of Ray Kurzweil and other futurists trying to figure out how, exactly, his artificially intelligent female lead should operate, Jonze arrived at a critical insight: Her, he realized, isn’t a movie about technology. It’s a movie about people. With that, the film took shape. Sure, it takes place in the future, but what it’s really concerned with are human relationships, as fragile and complicated as they’ve been from the start.”

This reading seems perfectly in line with what seems, from the outset, to have been the initial goals of the new film directed by the same guy who made this short. But Molly Lambert of Grantland came away with a vastly different and, I think, equally valid reading that the film that possibly betrays things about Jonze himself in ways the director may or may not have realized:

“The OS girlfriend experience never approaches anything resembling a real relationship because Twombly isn’t ready for a real relationship; he just wants a caregiver mother type to tuck him in at night, make him feel safe and reassured, and not demand too much of him. . . The movie is criticizing Twombly, but I was never sure how much we were supposed to identify with him. . . Her made me think a lot, but it never made me feel anything. For a movie about the importance of feelings, it’s still super left-brained. It’s not really a romance anyway. It’s a tragicomedy about the nuclear aftermath of a breakup, and a very dark comedy at that.”

So Her may be about human relationships by actually being about the impossibility of certain relationships, or the ways in which particular personality types have taken fleeting, escapist comfort in their perceived control of technologies in lieu of actual humans.

I see the film as having a rather ambivalent take on technology. On the one hand, it challenges to the idea that biological, bodily connection is necessary for “real” emotions; it takes to task human nostalgia for reality as something that you can see and touch beyond the distractions of modern life, and instead invests transformative human emotion simply in things you can know and experience. Emotion is in the cerebellum of the beholder, and new technologies should prompt us to radically rethink our criteria for valuable human relationships and the capacity for intimacy.

But on the other hand, the film’s second half gives weight to Lambert’s reading, revealing a subtly dystopian (and, in terms of futurism, conservative) endorsement of what we feared all along: the devices we’re addicted to are draining us of our innate humanity and our shared capacity for human connection, masquerading as authentic experiences while isolating us from an “actual” (i.e., bodily) presence with other people.

What do you think?

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