“Her” Is The New “Gattaca”
January 5, 2014

“Her” Is The New “Gattaca”

Filed under Unexpected Positivity

Every once in a while a movie blows your mind, scattering gory globs of brain all over the faces of your friends, who are like, “Jesus, dude, uch, why is there brain all over my face? Can you please stop ranting about that stupid movie?” For me, that movie was always Gattaca. Now, it’s Her.

Unfortunately I’ve exhausted the patience of all my human friends with my pseudo-intellectual reflections. Deprived of real world opportunities to discuss Spike Jonze’s new film, I am now finding solace in the warm, empty embrace of the Internet.  Which brings me to the plot of Her…

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Her is about a lonely, mustached Joaquin Phoenix (recently divorced from a super hot and super fierce Rooney Mara) who falls in love with an uber-advanced Siri, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Was that a terrible plot overview? Why don’t you just read this one instead?

And in case you missed Gattaca, which came out 17 years ago btw, that one is about an ambitious, genetically flawed Ethan Hawke who lives in a world governed by DNA determinism, where those with perfect genes have perfect lives and those with hereditary flaws are relegated to a life of strife. 

Both movies envision and evaluate the inevitable end-results of modern day technology. When you’re observing a universe in which genes equal destiny and machines equal people, you have to put quotation marks around “science-fiction,” given today’s rapid advances in robotics and genetic engineering. And frankly, the futures predicted by Gattaca and Her don’t even have to come true to stay relevant --- we’re already living in a world that is equal parts physical and virtual and, thanks to the death of social mobility in this country, who you’re born to already matters more than what you do.

I thought Her was a really fantastic flick. Any movie that can depict something so surreal with such realism or tackle pretentious philosophical questions with such grace and subtlety (without a single off-key line of dialogue) deserves a standing ovation. Gattaca, as much as I love it, certainly did not accomplish all of that --- Gattaca gets an A for realism and a D for subtlety. Although, to be fair, realism in Gattaca was a much more difficult achievement --- prenatal screening notwithstanding, it ain’t too hard to imagine a world in which everyone is glued to a screen, overly-reliant on technology, and madly in love with Scarlett Johansson. 

But anyway, it’s that subtlety, in the form of intellectual ambiguity, which makes Her an infinitely better movie than Gattaca. Both movies are thought-experiments that revolve around pretty simple, straightforward questions: “Is it totally chill if a human falls in love with a robot, or is that kind of fucked up?” versus “Do we really wanna live in a society that uses science to enforce biological discrimination?”

But let me go out on a limb here and say that nobody has ever walked out of Gattaca confused about the answer. Gattaca spoon-feeds its audience the correct interpretation --- “no man, you really don’t want to live in that kind of society, cause nurture can overcome nature and man is more than just the sum of his nucleotides.” Some would argue that heavy-handed approach is a hallmark characteristic of bad art. The real problem, as I see it, is that if you don’t arrive at a conclusion all by yourself, you end up exchanging it for another, shinier one at the first sign of trouble --- it’s easy to give up what was never really yours. Once a filmmaker comes along with a similarly direct but utopian spin on Gattaca --- a world without disease, a world that’s empirically meritocratic --- then, my friend, you’ll be lining up to get your genome mapped.

Compare all that with my experience of Her. I saw Her two weeks ago, and I still have no fucking idea how to answer its question. Is it totally chill if a human falls in love with a robot? Or is that kind of fucked up? The two women in Joaquin’s life offer diametrically opposed but equally convincing responses.

I can’t find the exact quote on IMDB, but Joaquin’s BFF Amy Adams basically says to him, “Hey man, life is short, do whatever makes you happy, it’s not like you’re hurting anybody by having phone sex with a robot.” His ex-wife Rooney Mara, on the other hand, is all like, “Yea Joaquin, of course you’d fucking wind up with a robot, that way you don’t have to take any shit from a real woman about how whack you are as a person.”

The problem with Rooney Mara’s interpretation is that it’s not fair --- actually, Joaquin takes quite a lot of shit from his robot. A few h8ers online have argued that Joaquin’s relationship with Robot Scarlett Johansson is one-dimensional, that Robot ScarJo is not a legit, complex woman but rather a “placeholder, standing in, as a pronoun does, for whatever we want.” I have no idea what movie these people were watching. The characters’ virtual relationship was every bit as messy and sophisticated as a “real” one. They had to deal with the lack of physical contact (long distance relationship, anyone?), differing views on monogamy (hyper-rational ScarJo, like my 8th Grade Girlfriend who cheated on me on New Years Eve, just doesn’t get why that’s a big deal), and a serious personality mismatch (the robot is near-omniscient, reading Physics textbooks for kicks and pondering profound ontological paradoxes, whereas Joaquin is kind of a putz). Rooney thinks dating a robot is just a form of escapism. Well, spoiler alert: by the end, it doesn’t look like a particularly fun getaway.  

And Amy Adam’s interpretation doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny either. First of all, is accepting the fact that robots are equal to humans really as benign as it seems? Couldn’t there perhaps be some unintended consequences to believing that humans are no better than inanimate objects incapable of suffering? What if we begin treating humans like robots, eg: hitting them when they don’t work, casually dumping them once an upgrade becomes available? Typically, any time that humans start to think of other humans as less than human, bad shit happens real fast (see: slavery, holocaust).

And there’s an even more fatal flaw in Amy Adam’s logic. “It’s cool to date a robot, as long as it makes you happy.” Ok Amy, but here’s a thought: what if it doesn’t make you happy? Then is it not cool? This is really my major gripe with Her --- ultimately, it’s an idealistic portrait of technology. Even though the relationship doesn’t work out, Joaquin Phoenix is clearly a better, happier person for having been with Robot Scarlett Johansson. His interpersonal skills were enhanced by her (he’s more comfortable chilling with his coworkers, he figures out what went wrong with Rooney, he’s confident enough to seduce Olivia Wilde on a blind date).  

But hey, doesn’t that strike you as a tad…unrealistic? You’re telling me that you can spend every minute of every day with a virtual person who knows absolutely everything and was perfectly designed to meet your specifications, and you’re still going to enjoy the company of real, semi-shitty people? Sounds like a great recipe for mass alienation. Sherry Turkle, a Professor at MIT who really, really, fucking hates robots and wrote a great book about it called Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other would back me up here: “Dependence on a robot presents itself as risk free…But when one becomes accustomed to ‘companionship’ without demands, life with people may seem overwhelming.” That’s pretty airtight logic right there, no?

Man, I just can’t stop thinking about Her. Sorry Gattaca, you just don’t really tease my brain anymore, not like you used to.  

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