The Small World of “Her”


In Japan, it’s called hikikomori. According to the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, 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, in which case there’ll be at least a cameo by a Catholic priest.)

In Her, all the characters have turned in on themselves, and having done so 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, ever since the Silent Era, movie acting has always been 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 a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer).