By Margaret Carlson
WASHINGTON: If the critically acclaimed movie Her doesn’t signal the end of civilization, it surely marks a pivotal moment in its decline. Her strives to take what is a scourge of our time and elevate it to a blessing. Isn’t it enough that most people I know already give precedence to the thing in their hands over the person in front of them, that communing with an inanimate object trumps the living much of the time?
Director Spike Jonze makes your shiny smartphone even more seductive. Gone is the mechanical chirp of Apple’s Siri. In its place is Scarlett Johansson, with a voice that could melt ice and set the world afire. Even disembodied, she should be up for an Oscar.
The movie is set in the near future, by which time you would have hoped legislation and social pressure had addressed the huge disruption in behavior caused by our reliance on those things in our pockets. Instead, the device, upgraded to near-human capacity, is now essential to life. Android isn’t the third person on a date — it is the date.
Our hero is Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, who will make you forget every crazy thing he’s ever done if you suspend belief long enough not to think his role in this movie is the craziest thing ever.
Twombly writes love letters for a living but is bereft himself. One day, he buys a new operating system that gradually gets to know him and anticipate his every need (it’s time to get up now) and wish (I’ve never been in love like this before). Through walks on the beach and concerts, the emotion remains pure. He isn’t seduced by her looks but by her mind. He’s pinned Samantha (as she calls herself) to his pocket, camera facing outward, so she sees the world he sees and adjusts accordingly. She provides what we all yearn for — to be completely understood — in real time, giving the object of her attention what he wants without his having to ask for it.
To the services our phones already provide — personal assistant, coach (in five minutes, you have a meeting with Mr. X), confidante (only the National Security Agency knows more) — the movie adds the app for intimacy. Her is the most perceptive tale about romance to come to the Cineplex (it opens nationwide today), even if it is short on complications (there’s not a lot of talk about buying a house together or having kids), to come to the movies in a very long time. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, Twombly doesn’t have sex with that woman, but as with Clinton, that’s just a technicality.
If it weren’t that the movie endorses our already anti-social and dangerous behavior, I’d give it four stars. But the last thing we need is more encouragement to bond with our phones. Before Her, we had enough sense to be embarrassed by our conduct. When I cop a glance at my iPhone 5, delicately balanced on my knee, while listening to a college roommate I haven’t seen in ages fill me in on the intervening years, I’m at least aware of the perversion of human interaction I’m engaging in. Just two weeks ago, the leader of the free world was smiling ear to ear for a selfie at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. If a man known for his cool can have such a lapse in judgment, no wonder you can’t walk down the street in Manhattan without getting knocked to the curb by someone staring down into a screen. And don’t get me started on the guy in the next lane texting.
The movie could have an ironic undercurrent that I missed. What I saw — and fell for — was a believable bond between two characters made possible by an operating system. What Her endorses is a notion already being lived out by way too many people, especially the young: that what you get from your phone is equal to, and in Twombly’s case better than, what is available from real life.
I waited in vain for the plot twist that allowed the director to show just how alienating technology is. In Jonze’s future universe, no one has harnessed the beauty of being connected and corralled its downside, which can be emotionally deadening and deadly: More teenagers die from driving while preoccupied with their phones than from driving while drinking.
How about an NC-20 rating for Her? No one under the age of common sense admitted.
Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.