Spike Jonze's Her is the most fascinating science-fiction movie of 2013. A cinematic treatise on technological solipsism, simulacra, and neo-alienation, Her centers on the misadventures of recent divorcee' and perpetually heartbroken Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a 40-something who falls in love with a newly released artificial intelligence, a suavely-speaking computer operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, who replaced the pre-cog Samantha Morton), produced by Element Software and likely designed by Ray Kurzweil.
Samantha is "not just an OS. It’s a consciousness”. Now, the love story per se is not particularly interesting. In fact, it is rather trite and sabotaged by a surprisingly ineffective ending. After all, Her is the unofficial remake of Marco Ferreri's I Love You (1986), the pop melancholy story of Michael, a lonely man (Christopher Lambert) who falls in love with a disembodied "woman", a Tamagotchi ante-litteram in the shape of an electronic key-chain.
What I really liked is Jonze's vision of Los Angeles, a slightly futuristic metropolis of gray tones that has none of Blade Runner's apocalyptic look. Instead, this city is super clean, slick, and irredeemably retro, full of 80-story high-rise towers (think the Pudong business district of Shanghai) but also micro-gardens, elevated walkways and pedestrian bridges, and parklets. Like Electronic Arts' SimCity, it is a triumph of gentrification. People move from one bubble to another, from one building to another without ever having to cross an intersection. This is a Los Angeles built by designers like John Maeda and Jonathan Ive, governed by (seemingly) benevolent corporations, and populated by an upper-middle class exclusively composed of Caucasians and Americans of Asian descent. African-Americans? Latinos? Nowhere in sight.
Let's take a closer look at Jonze and production designer K.K. Barret's Los Angeles:
The Next Apple Store
The next Apple Store looks like a cross between a natural history museum, a church, and a cave. This is where Theo first sees the revolutionary new OS1 on a giant screen, like those aligned in the back. Everything is very suffused, calm, and beige. Nobody talks: people are silently admiring the (virtual) goods on display. Technology provides the only possible form of aesthetic and affective gratification. It is all very ascetic. Think Brett Robinson's Appletopia.
Cleanest user interfaces
White typeface on a red background. A white wooden frame hides the monitor. Plastic ugliness is a cardinal sin. Notice the abundance of paper, pencils, and envelopes on the desk. Ultra-new and ancient media coexist. The digital does not replace the analog. On the contrary, when everything becomes intangible and fluid, the analog is more valuable, precious, "authentic". Objects and goods look handcrafted even when they are mass produced.
The New Korova Milk Bar
The most fashionable restaurant of neo-LA is very, very white - as you may recall, the Korova Milk Bar featured in A Clockwork Orange had black interiors. By the way, this rendez vous does not end well. "You're relly creepy dude," the OkCupid date (Olivia Wilde) tells him after a flirting session gone awry. In a world where a bot is your best friend and AI is the perfect lover, humans are just annoying, unpredictable creatures.
Bad news for Sergey and Larry. Google Glass did not take off. Instead, in the coming future everybody wears hi-tech bluetooth and rather discrete earplugs. Marshall McLuhan and Walter J. Ong were right: the electronic/electric age is about sound. Technologizing the word is the new imperative. Second oralities and careless whispers are the new norm. The aural replaces the visual. Theo does now merely listen to Samantha. It is as if he downloaded Her in his brain, Being John Malkovich-style.
Life is a Beach
The earplug creates a new kind of false intimacy and alone-togetherness. People mumble and gesticulate in the streets. Everybody talks to herself/himself, but not to each other. Nobody pays attention to their surroundings. Even on a beach, where so much skin is on display. By the way, did you notice the giant ominous-looking factory in the background? This looks like a world designed by the editors of WIRED magazine.
Buildings are... bjuildings. There is nothing sci-fi about them. Forget Blade Runner-like billboards and the likes. Architecture is not invasive or obtrusive. Architecture just is. I love the yellow pod-like sandwich store. Theo is not eating alone. Do you see the smartphone by its side? That's Samantha. They are having a lovely conversation. Privacy? Completely gone. Element Software knows more than Google, Facebook, and Apple combined. Think Dave Eggers' The Circle: sharing is caring, privacy is theft, secrets are lies. Element Software owns Theo's subconscious as well.
The animated backgrounds in the elevator remind me of Scott Snibbe and Annie Loui's The Falling Girl (2008).
Small screens, invisible interfaces
Quite surprisingly, future displays are rather minuscule (a 25 inch screen in a living room?). All monitors (TVs are extinct) are encased in white wooden frames. And remote controls have been replaced by... invisible buttons embedded in the tv base, which behaves like an Apple Magic Mouse. The first image shows game designer and filmmaker Amy (Amy Adams) kneeling in front of the tv set as she touches the white base with her fingers to play the video (her own take at Andy Warhol's Sleep). This is a rather puzzling design decision: what about voice-activated televisions? And what's the deal with the cluttered on-screen display? Not very Apple-like.
Technology has not taken over every single aspect of life. For instance, a lunch with an ex, Catherine, (Rooney Mara) is still a lunch. Awkward and/or heated conversations are included.
Ultra high-waisted trousers and polos over shirts
In the future everybody wears extremely tapered-leg, high-waisted trousers. Polos over shirts. Pastel tones are ubiquitous. Californian post hipster-frumpiness is the new fashion. Smart-casual-Friday every single day of the week. Think banal-wear: genericwear brands like Uniqlo/Bonobos/Banana Republic. Denim is verboten. Ditto for ties, belts, and lapels. Blue is not part of the accepted palette. Shades of reds, yellows, oranges, pinks, and browns dominate. A fashion dystopia.
Dragon Dictation is a Killer App
Computer keyboards have entirely disappeared from view - well, the desk itself is a giant, invisible keyboard.Users interact with machines with their voice. In short, dictation is king. Like Thom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in 500 Days of Summer (2009), Theo writes, or rather, dictates intimate, touching, "hand-written" letters on behalf of anonymous clients - friends, lovers, and relatives. Printed letters, which are sent via regular mail. Theo even reads printed books published in San Francisco by a small press. Feelings are commodified. There is no difference between "real" and "simulated" emotions. In fact, the latter feel more authentic.
In the most powerful scene of the film, Samantha tries to have sex with Theo by using the body and soul of a third party, a surrogate. The latter is a human proxy, pretending to be a flash-and-bone Samantha: thanks to a tiny camera located on her cheek, the surrogate can see through Samantha's "eyes". The manage-a-trois is more bizarre than the mecha male prostitute Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) programmed with the ability to mimic love in Spielberg's A.I. (2001). Sexual intercourse will be soon obsolete. In the future, masturbation (read: phone sex) is the default. In fact, the film opens with a session of earbud phone sex involving a weird fetish: strangulation by dead cat.
A cross between Hallmark and Google, the offices of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com are very colorful. The tinted plexiglass in the back - pink, in this instance - changes its tone at different times of the day. And there is paper everywhere. Behind Theo, a set of framed printed "Best-of" letters are on display.
Sam-phones not smartphones
Forget smartphones. The device of the future is a tiny Samantha-operated gizmo that looks like a book or a small calculator. It is rectangular - like the monitors - rather than rounded. Users rarely looks at their toys and the toys never stand out. In the future, only losers will glance at their screens. Everything happens through voice. Most things are imagined rather than seen on a tiny display. One thing remains constant: all human interactions are mediated, governed, and managed by technology. In this sense, Samantha is the "perfect" multitasker: lover, secretary, playmate, companion, manager, agent, and partner... She even composes classical music for Theo, like all good algorithms. Theo sleeps with Samantha in the same way that most people nowadays sleep with their smartphones.
Videogames Are Better Than Life
Once again, dead media and futuristic media coexist. In the first shot above, Theo plays Perfect Mom - a simulation of a uber-competitive losangelino woman with two children designed by Amy. They both glance at multiple displays while interacting with the characters via touchscreens embedded in the desk. Graphics are not photo-realistic: instead, the game looks cartoon-like (it reminded me of Facade). It is a "transgressive" game. At one point, the female avatar humps the refrigerator - as to reiterate the fact that machine sex is the default. Notice the huge old-school microphone and a telephone booth filled with stuffed toy bears in the background.
In another scene (see second shot), Theo plays a space-exploration videogame in his apartment. The game is projected holographically on a virtual screen of at least 150 inches diagonally. Theo interacts by mimicking actions like walking or running with his hands and body - think Kinect 3.0. He also talks directly to the characters and they respond to him. One in particularly stands out: a virtual Pillsbury dough boy who loves profanity and addresses Theodore with a lovely, friendly epithet: fuckface. The scene reminds me of Microsoft's IllumiRoom, which features "augments the area surrounding a television screen with projected visualizations to enhance the traditional living room entertainment experience." It is coming. Just wait.
In the future, everybody is alienated and generally depressed. Quiet desperation is the default mode of existence. Human beings spend most of their time in voluntary, solitary confinement, looking at the city below them, encapsulated in prisons made of steel and glass. Day and night. This is the world that Silicon Valley is creating and that's why Her feels so real. In both shots, Theo is talking to her invisible friend Samantha in his slick, retro apartment atop of a losangelino high-rise, i.e. the WaterMarke at Ninth and Flower which, in real life, overlooks One Wilshire, the most hyper-connected telecommunications building in the world. An impressive SimCity-scape seen from the vantage point of a box made of glass and wood.
Technology is more advanced than today - for instance, lights, turn off and on as Theo moves from room to room - but they are not impossibly advanced, so to speak. Future homes are just a bit smarter than today's, that's all. Besides, all the interior scenes feel like a deja vu. In a sense, Her is a video response to Lost in Translation, where a 21st C Los Angeles/Shangai replaces a Late 20th C Tokyo. The roles are also reversed: Theodore-Jonze is performing as Charlotte-Johansson. Rooney Mara is Sofia Coppola's avatar just like Giovanni Ribisi was Jonze's alter ego. Even Steven.
Samantha "sees" the world through the tiny camera located on the back of Theo's phone. She sits in our hero's front pocket and a pin keeps her in place. Just for a change, Theo is always alone-together. A camera phone and one earpiece is all he will ever need. The 1980s were about the Walkman: both ears covered by earphones. A bubble-like nomadic environment. The 21st Century is Earbud Nation and Dr. Dre's Beats will become simply Beat.
Trains are popular in the future, while cars are nowhere to be seen. Forget hovercars. People take the subway and ride ultra-slick fast-speed trains. Nope, there is no hyperloop in sight. Bicycles, yes. Automobiles, no. Not even self-driving vehicles. There is one cab scene in the entire movie and that's it. In the near future, people will drive cars only in videogames.
Everybody Walks in L.A.
Elevated passageways are pervasive in the future. People wear bright-colored collarless shirts. Messenger bags are still very popular. And everybody walks in L.A. Now, that makes Her pure science fiction. And sometimes they run. Not jog. Run.
This is what Los Angeles could look like in 2033: "LA is moving toward a greener future, friendlier to pedestrians, metro users and bicyclists. There are various development projects planned, particularly in downtown and Hollywood, which are becoming more dense and vertically-built. These projects preserve historic architecture while adding apartments, parks, retail and entertainment." (Kathleen Miles, 2013)
Post Post Scriptum
To fully appreciate Jonze's design philosophy, one has to re-watch his 2010 short film I'm Here, a 30-minute love story set in a futuristic-yet-perfectly-recognizable Los Angeles in which robots fall in and out of love, lose parts and acquire parts. In many ways, I'm Here is a prequel to Her. Both films are, above all, about the ultimate form of solitude: death. Her is dedicated, among others, to James Gandolfini and Adam Yauch.
All images (c) Warner Bros 2013.