The Catholic Thing
The Small World of "Her" Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 13 January 2014

In Japan, it’s called hikikomori. According to the Ministry of Health, it’s a condition in which people, male or female, usually young, “refuse to leave their houses and, thus, isolate themselves from society . . . for a period exceeding six months.” The American futurist Faith Popcorn has identified a similar syndrome here, which she calls “cocooning.” Here or there, it’s a serious matter, exacerbated by media: the virtual realities of cable TV, the Internet, instant messaging, video gaming, et alia.

You can just lie down and die. Actually, that’s called kodokushi, the “lonely death,” another problem plaguing Japan. Isolated people, especially unemployed men, die in their apartments. (The number of Japanese men living alone grew from fewer than 200,000 in 1980 to more than a million by 2005.) Nobody notices until the stench of the blackening corpse wafts up through air vents.

As the New York Times reported in 2012:

The utilities are cut off. The mail piles up. No sounds come from the apartment. The neighbors don’t knock. Nobody comes. Nobody goes.
It’s a horrible vision of a decaying society, although there’s more to Japan than that – just as there is much more to America. But here too many people withdraw into “social” media, which for some actually may be social, but for others is simply an amplification of their seclusion.

Thus the new film, Her, from the director (Adam Spiegel) who calls himself Spike Jonze. The often fascinating Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a writer of sorts, who lives in an alluring, colorful dystopia in which a phenomenon we all know – clueless people walking along heedlessly while texting or tweeting or talking, apparently oblivious to the rest of us – has become a way of life. People simply pass by one another.

Theodore buys the newest hyper-intuitive operating system for his wired world, and in a matter of seconds “Samantha” (the voice of Scarlett Johansson) is in his head and his life. As they talk, “she” grows in knowledge and insight. And, apparently, love. It’s an odd love, made odder by the film’s R rating (see the note below).

One of Theodore’s apartment-dwelling neighbors, Amy (Amy Adams), also develops a relationship with her computer, although hers is more platonic.

But Theodore and Samantha go everywhere together, even on vacation and double dates with one of Theodore’s co-workers, whose companion is a real human woman.

The end of the film is familiar in a science-fiction-fantasy way, but not because the disembodied intelligences such as Samantha disappear, apparently bored with humans, but because the world left to Theodore and Amy seems so small. It reminded me of the end of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a movie I saw as a kid and that scared and saddened me. Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is exposed to a strange cloud and begins losing weight. But also height. He shrinks until he realizes he’s probably heading towards atomic size and then oblivion, which gives him peace, because, as he says, to God “there is no zero.”

Bereft of their A.I. companions, Theodore and Amy sit upon a rooftop and stare out at Los Angeles at sunset, and they’re almost together.

Have you noticed that in nearly every futuristic film (and it’s true of most films, I suppose) nobody ever goes to church or prays or mentions the name of Jesus Christ? (The exceptions are films in which the devil appears: there will be at least a walk-on by a Catholic priest.)

In Her, all the characters have turned in on themselves, and having done so they turn away from others and, of course, God. I don’t know if Spike Jonze would read that sentence and nod or frown; nor do I care. I’m disinterested in what a director means to “say,” and know only what I see on screen. The consensus at the film-review website Rotten Tomatoes is that Her is “sweet, soulful, and smart,” to which I can say, well, one out of three ain’t bad.

Smart the film is. And it may suggest sweetness to some that Theodore’s artificially intelligent lover awakens in him all the emotions he ought to have felt and expressed to his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) or might come to feel for Amy. But it’s the kind of treacle withdrawn pre-teens might mistake for sweet.

And if ever a film was soulless, Her is it. Part of the conceit is that when Theodore “comes out” about his virtual girlfriend nobody bats an eye. No doubt the courts would consent to their marriage, as no doubt also to a union with a unicorn if that were the object of Theodore’s desire. Memories of his failed marriage haunt Theodore, as well they might, since, as imperfectly spontaneous as it was, that marriage was possibly his only chance at actual happiness. Indeed, a message of Her might be that there’s no such thing as virtual happiness. Definitely no virtual salvation.

Her is a film well worth seeing, although if anybody comes away thinking it’s the “feel-good” movie of the year, that person should head straight to Confession, because the world of Her really is a nightmare.

Watch especially for the brief appearance of actress Olivia Wilde as a young woman desperately trying to find a real and lasting love: one is reminded why it’s said that movie acting is all about the eyes.

[Note to potential viewers of Her: There is overuse of the f-word and one scene of sex talk, ‘spoken’ against a blank screen.]
Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His book, The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Avery Tödesuhl , January 12, 2014
The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. Of course, that's only the guidance by the USCCB, and many of the commenters on TCT know better than the Bishops Conference, don't they?

Anyway I don't think I'll see it since it "contains strong sexual content, including aberrant bedroom behavior, semigraphic nonmarital sexual activity, a glimpse of full female nudity and brief obscene images as well as much rough and crude language." Again that's just what the Bishops report ...
written by Rich in MN, January 13, 2014
I had to laugh when I read:
"Have you noticed that in nearly every futuristic film (and it’s true of most films, I suppose) nobody ever goes to church or prays or mentions the name of Jesus Christ?"

Hollywood's "damnatia" on Christianity is so blatant, it's funny-- in a sad, disturbing sort of way. Yesterday I saw the movie "Frozen," a sweet movie with just a few tacky moments. It is set in what appears to be Norway circa 18th century. There is one scene were a new queen is being crowned and the setting is obviously a cathedral. However there is no cross anywhere in sight and the "bishop" is wearing on his head what looks to be some kind of indiscreet hybrid of mitre and freemason fez (and, again, no cross to be found).

Of course, if Hollywood cannot avoid Christianity, it will promote urban legend to advance its own agenda. I recently saw a trailer for "Son of God" and it looked interesting. However, one "scene snippet" of the Last Supper showed a woman (presumably where John the Apostle should be). I'm guessing that this "Jesus meets Dan Brown" moment is not the only distortion in the movie. Just a guess.....
written by william manley, January 13, 2014
Why go to the movies for this? Just google "Manti Teo's virtual girlfriend." It was the sports story of 2012. The most decorated college football player of all time, Notre Dame's Manti Teo, was lionized for playing through the pain of losing his dear, sweet girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, to cancer. Turns out she was a virtual girlfriend. The scary part was that Teo couldn't seem to distinguish between virtual reality and physical reality. The defense of Teo was quite interesting: his girlfriend may have been virtual, but her "death" caused him real pain.
written by Allan Cheung, January 13, 2014
Mr. Toadstool: You do know that the USCCB no longer has anything to do with the movie ratings churned out by Catholic News Service, right?
written by Matt, January 13, 2014
I just went to see "Lone Survivor". Suggest others do as well to see, and experience, the complete opposite of our cultural isolation. No wonder each vet generation seems to have a harder time adjusting to civilian life. As our society degrades I suspect that level of non-assimilation will grow.

How does one assimilate into our society's cultural isolation and triviality after experiencing such a deep level of camaraderie and purpose in the service; especially forged by self-sacrifice, a code of honor and true grit?

The problem is not with our returning veterans but with our culture; for they have to degrade themselves to assimilate.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, January 13, 2014
With increasing societal ennui, my guess is that suicide rates will be increasing. But alongside that will be a commensurate longing and searching what what people used to call "God."
written by Joseph Dooley, January 13, 2014
A sad chapter in the the “technisation” of love, to borrow a distinct phrase of Berdyaev’s.

Losers who have no chance of picking up the model at the club but try anyway are called “sweet,” a more acceptable form of “pathetic.”
written by Bridget, January 17, 2014
Mr Milner, "disinterested" doesn't mean what you think it means, which is kind of funny in the context.
written by Brad Miner, January 17, 2014
@Bridget: First, it's Miner, not Milner. Second, the debate about "disinterested" and "uninterested" goes on. Literary Jansenists may prefer the latter; I prefer the former. This from Merriam-Webster:

Disinterested and uninterested have a tangled history. Uninterested originally meant “impartial,” but this sense fell into disuse during the 18th century. At about the same time, the original sense of disinterested (with the simple negative meaning “not interested”) also disappeared, with uninterested developing a new sense—the present meaning—to take its place. The original “impartial” sense of uninterested is still out of use, but the original sense of disinterested reappeared in the early 20th century and has since been under frequent attack as an illiteracy and a blurring or loss of a useful distinction. Actual usage shows otherwise. Sense 2 of disinterested is still its most frequent sense, especially in edited prose; it shows no sign of vanishing.

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