5 Critiques of Modern Society From Spike Jonze’s “Her”

It might be the most thought-provoking film of last year.

Her” is a slow-burn drama from writer/director/producer machine Spike Jonze that slipped into theaters in December 2013. Did many put it on their to-watch list? Maybe not right away. Did moviegoers miss out if they made another box office selection? Most definitely.

Highly rated by critics is one thing (it garnered consistent 80s or 90s). Once audiences saw “Her,” they fell for it, too. The film offers a surprisingly fitting circle of popular actors and actresses to back up Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, including Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the operating system, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, and more.

If you’re looking for a lighthearted romantic comedy, “Her” will come across as melancholy. If you want a hyper-realistic philosophical diatribe, you won’t quite be satisfied. But if you’re open to an interpretation of modern society mixed with a little provocative creativity, this is the film for you.

Like other thinking-person’s movies, “Her” is best viewed with a few friends who can unpack the themes together for a few hours afterward. There’s a lot to tackle, including these 5 things:

5 Critiques of Modern Society From Spike Jonze’s “Her”

1. Technology is a crutch.

Whenever protagonist Theodore (played masterfully by Phoenix)  walks around in public, the quasi-futuristic city of Los Angeles is swarming with people. But most of them, like Theodore, bury their faces in the smartphone-esque devices they carry. All I could think of during those scenes was the urge to tell them, put down the device and look at each other.

It’s a fascinating piece of technology in the movie, connecting users to the information they need and helping them complete the work they have to do. The earpiece wirelessly connects to the computer and handheld smartphone-like devices. Everyone is always connected. Actual typing or pressing buttons doesn’t exist. Need to compose an email? Speak it into your earpiece or directly to your computer. Need to hear the latest celebrity gossip? Listen through your earpiece. Want to talk to someone because you’re lonely (or with more seductive intent)? Earpiece. Need to play life-sized video games? Project it from your handheld device into a whole room. No keyboards, no mice. Minimal interface, which allows people to use technology so seamlessly it’s nearly impossible to step away from it.

What happens in a world where people trust computers more than each other? There’s something ominous about growing drastically dependent on a product created for people instead of actually engaging with people. We’re not meant to live connected with technology but disconnected with other people.

2. Romance is not a quick fix.

The movie is branded as “A Spike Jonze love story” so you know what you’re getting into, even if you haven’t seen the trailer. Love is a major theme of the film. Theodore’s relationship with his operating system, Samantha, takes on a whole other level of passionate obsession.

Amy Adams’ character delivers one of the quotable lines of the film: Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially-acceptable insanity.

Love is a cultivation of care for another person. It’s not a one-night stand or a fling. Nor is it giving in to a significant other’s wishes all the time. An equitable romance is balanced between both people, including both the emotions of affection and the commitment for the good of each other.

When romance becomes about what a person can feel or get out of the other, it’s become deeply flawed. “Her” raises the question of what love is and who/what can participate in romance.

3. Existentialism is useful but not ultimate.

Where do we find meaning? Are humans the only ones who can access it? Adams’ character and Johansson’s character each struggle to find meaning, but relish pursuit of knowledge and art as means to that end.

Her” also explores existentialism in connection with artificial intelligence. The hybrid of humanism and technology, it begs the question: what does it mean to exist? Do computer programs have an existence of their own? What’s a person and what’s not? Can a thing have legitimate emotions that go beyond what it was programmed to be? This may become a real-life discussion if science continues to progress with giving artificial intelligence with humanoid robotic bodies more agency in our world and eventually in our everyday lives.

It’s hard not to wonder about all the possibilities created by such powerful artificial intelligence.

4. Transportation needs an overhaul.

Los Angeles is an endless horizon of skyscrapers, neat lines and uninspiring grey in tone. There is little vibrant about the world and smog still seems to reign in Southern California…despite the lack of cars! That’s right; no futuristic, technology-laden spacecraft or hoverboards or anything. The only transportation in the movie is a high-speed train Theodore rides to the beach or out of the city.

There’s very intentional design throughout the movie, and avoiding such typical renderings of the future was a focus of the filmmakers. Is this social commentary on the illegitimacy of cars that have become nothing more than status symbols and enemies of the environment?

Apparently the future is all walking and public transportation. But all the time getting around the city on foot gives Theodore lots of time to brood over his stormy emotions.

5. Fashion doesn’t make the person.

What’s with the clothes? Apparently the future’s clothing trends are…retro and reserved. Lots of faded tones, annoyingly high-waisted woolen trousers and button-up shirts with no collars. Hardly any black or high-contrast are present. No one dresses sexy.

One article puts it this way:

“When you live so much in your own imagination, communicating through screens and ear pieces, who needs innovative clothes?”

If people of the future are so invested in their digital lives and digital careers, who has time to enhance physical appearance?

Perhaps this is Jonze’s take on what a love story should really focus on: not bodies or appearance, but the personality and perspective a being has.


Have you watched “Her”? What theme stands out to you most?



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