Kimberly Lieu – Men of the Future and Spike Jonze’s Her

In Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her, we find Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) emotionless and disconnected from the rest of the world. He’s in the midst of an excruciating divorce, struggling with recollections of the tender moments of his marriage while working a day job as writer for a love letter company.

In his quest for some kind of connection, Theodore settles for the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who fully and intuitively interacts with him. Over time, he develops a relationship and falls in love with her— and she with him. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is full of obvious hurdles—she’s bodiless, yet sexual and often jealous—but it’s the not-so-obvious ones that are most surprising and complex. Samantha is an OS that evolves as quickly as technology does and Theodore remains ever human— both are trapped in their respectable worlds.

HER

We watch their relationship unfold (or decode) like any other, laden with romantic feelings of elation, insecurity, frustration, and the creative ways in which they deal with their situation. Remarkably, when Theodore begins to question and confess the reality of his relationship to his friend, Amy (Amy Adams), she supports him by telling him that love is “a socially-acceptable form of insanity,” reassuring him that his love for a “computer” isn’t that crazy. In Her, the intersection of love and technology is perfectly acceptable and even understandable in their not-so-distant-future world, even if we (the viewers) may be uncomfortable with it.

We shift in our seats because something seems off. Perhaps it’s a little too real. Her seems to reflect a growing culture of human/non-human relationships in our already technologically advanced world, where some people oppose or have a difficult time connecting with other (read: real) people romantically; or they’re just uninterested in having sex altogether as observed in parts of Japanese culture. Technology permeates our existence, but even more in the personal lives of these men, sometimes replacing real women with virtual ones to fulfill their emotional and physical needs: why deal with the dreadful sifting-through and pressures of dating a human if there’s a virtual version available?

But what’s behind all of the disconnect? This isn’t a brand new idea— in Craig Gillespies’ indie film, Lars and the Real Girl, the lonely, anti-social Lars falls in love with a life-sized, anatomically correct doll. More recently, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s, Don Jon, is about machismo-Jon’s inability to be as satisfied with real sex as he is by getting off watching porn. Both characters are more gratified, albeit in different ways, by their imaginations than by fleshy women. (To be fair, these movies also feature exaggeratedly desperate/generally unrealistic female characters). Her differs in that Samantha thinks and creates on her own, engages with Theodore intimately and humorously, and even cultivates other relationships when he turns her off, so to speak. The common thread between the three is a trend where men turn to inanimate objects to fulfill their needs because they’re acutely unable to create meaningful connections with the opposite sex.

What does it mean that men are the heroes of these stories? Theodore, in some ways, seems to embody the Man of the Future: sensitive, empathetic, and someone who feels like he’s always just one-half of a whole— qualities that aren’t traditionally considered “manly”, which is perhaps why his masculinity is constantly being challenged and brought to the forefront of our consciousness. Theodore writes touching letters for a living. He’s called a “pussy” by a pudgy, sexless video game character. His co-worker describes him as “part man, part woman.” And he’s straight. Almost everything about the way Theodore moves within society puts his manhood under a microscope when, throughout the film, it is obvious that he does just fine without the presence of a real, human woman to satisfy his sexual urges and even unflinchingly turns down those who are ready and willing to give it to him.

Her offers a stirring look into the alternatives of social norms of the present future, the psychological manifestations that occur in relationships and emotional connection, and weaves in scenarios that test our perceptions of masculinity. While Theodore questions his own notions of reality, we are right there beside him examining ours.

Kimberly Lieu

Traveling poet and writer, Kimberly Lieu, does “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” Her poetry collection agridulce(bittersweet) is about transition and movement, composed on a crater-lake in Central America. In pursuit of wholeness, she always finds time for books and conversation. 

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