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Science fiction has long been associated with aliens, intergalactic warfare, and a dystopian portrayal of the future. Often impacted by historical events, the genre has focused primarily on expansion, in regards to space travel and technology. Films such as Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Alien have solidified their credibility within these paradigms through innovative special effects and storylines. However, over time, sci-fi films have evolved to encompass more humanistic themes and relatable approaches through filmmaking. Instead of fighting to protect our species, more characters are fighting to embrace deeper emotional complexities and relationships, while adjusting to fit within a new society. This kind of emotive introspection is beautifully exhibited in Spike Jonze’s 2014 sci-fi romance film, Her, in which Jonze examines the human need for expanding intimate experiences through technology, in order to adapt to the world.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to a romantic monologue in which Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) expresses love on behalf of a man who has been married to his wife for fifty years. His words are deeply heartfelt but not authentic, as Theodore’s job is to fabricate beautifully handwritten letters electronically. There is an immediate dissociative context of emotion, in which our protagonist comments on behalf of clients for their expression of love. The fact that there is a position that provides this service speaks to the emotional dissonance as a futuristic flaw and in turn, humanistic need to connect with others in a way that has somehow been forgotten. It also sounds like torture for poor Theodore, a melancholy loner on the verge of divorce who attempts to fill his romantic void by playing video games and engaging in awkward phone sex with women.
An advertisement for a new operating system grabs his attention one day by asking questions such as: “Who are you? What are the possibilities?” and promises a connection that “listens to you, understands you, and knows you.” The ad emphasized the new OS is not just an operating system but a consciousness. Upon purchase, he meets “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson) who consequently becomes immersed in Theodore’s life.
Her explores the depth of human interaction with technology acting as the conduit. It serves as a catalyst to connect with people similar to today’s dating apps. Browsing for partners has become a pastime driven by boredom, validation, and loneliness on par with mindlessly flipping through a clothing catalog. Until a connection is made, the experience is morosely mundane. Samantha bypasses all awkward physical encounters, and instead adapts to develop her own sense of self through her connection with Theodore.The boundary between human and artificial intelligence begins to blur once Samantha begins developing sexual and intellectual desire. She and Theodore grow as individuals while becoming more intimate, despite Samantha’s lack of physical embodiment. As a result, her fresh take on what it means to be human ignites a liveliness within Theodore that had diminished since his breakup.
Secondary characters also explore their need to affix with one another through technology, for both sexual gratification and acceptance. Samantha hires a surrogate so that she and Theodore can be physically intimate. Seeking to be a part of their “pure love” and wearing a device for Samantha, things go awry when Theodore is ironically unable to look past the physical. This juxtaposition provides further insight into how a physical presence is questioned in the importance of intimacy, and engenders another take on how characters in Her crave a connection with other humans to mend alienation.
Emotional development through technology is also exhibited by Theodore’s close friend, Amy (Amy Adams), whose company, ‘Be Perfect’, created a vicarious video game entitled ‘Perfect Moms’. The object of the game is to be the perfect mother by earning points when you feed your children healthy food and get them to school on time. Striving for perfection is a humanistic need that Her not only typifies romantically, but also in a social context amongst peers. The role of technology as displacement is a coping mechanism for this unattainable goal. The same can ring true for validation. Despite this strive for the ideal, Amy’s relationship with her husband crumbles. With the search for joy being one of the most fundamental goals of humanity, the interactions with artificial intelligence in Her facilitate happiness, but also reinforces that ultimately no one is perfect. Therefore, heartache and loss are inevitable, no matter how far into the future we go.
Another poignant aspect of Her is presented through color and relatable design. While most futuristic movies involve flying cars (The Fifth Element) or cyborgs (The Terminator), there lacks a sense of identity and ability to which audiences can relate. In Her, the monochromatic tones of blue, gold, and pink evoke a sense of warmth suggesting a utopian environment, as opposed to the cynicism of bleak grey-scale tones seen in many dystopian films. This use of color suggests hope, despite the characters’ loneliness and longing, and provides an all-encompassing emotional gradient. Even the costume and set design have a vintage, romantic feel, further supporting the ever-present basic need for love.
While Her focuses on expanding connection and emotion, Alexander Payne’s new sci-fi satire Downsizing takes the opposite approach, through reduction as a means of functionality, for environmental and financial reasons. Instead of examining loneliness, Downsizing utilizes technology to reduce the carbon footprint by shrinking people to five inches tall. Payne comedically begs the question of what we are searching for, and how technology serves as a catalyst for what makes life worth living while navigating a new world.
Whether through expansion or reduction, the spectrum of human emotion will adapt to the world around us no matter what advances occur. Our need to connect or disconnect is navigated by whatever makes us feel fulfilled. While speaking candidly with Theodore, teary-eyed on the comfort of her couch, Amy says it best for us all, “We're only here briefly, and while I'm here I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it.”