I usually find romantic film to be a subject that’s all too sugary-sweet, but the sub genre that has been building steam in recent years provides a refreshing, albeit somewhat terrifying, discussion on human intimacy with the ever-evolving technology of convenience. In the same way, generations adapted to telephones, Internet access, and smart phones, these fictional characters must tackle the paradox between having complete access to world from their fingertips and the strange sense of alienation from never having to leave their home to do so. These films ask the question, is such a thing as too much access? Too much information? Is contentment possible when there seem to be infinite options? Is the technology that is made to assist us, perhaps stunting us?
Spike Jonze’s most recent film, Her (2013), looks into these questions with a slightly different spin in what I would consider to be a fairly convincing realistic look at artificial intelligence and the moral ambiguity of developing a personal assistance technology that is capable of independent thoughts and feelings. The story follows a recently divorced introvert named Theodore Twombly in the year 2025. The ethical questions raised in this film revolve mostly around his developing romantic relationship with his OS “Samantha”. Although, it is worth noting that there are a lot of interesting moral quandaries for the viewer to consider within the background of the main storyline. For example, Theodore works at a company that ghostwrites romantic letters to the customer’s significant other under the assumption that it was written by their spouse and of course, not contracted out to a stranger. Although this deceit seems to be with the best intentions, that ethical grey area is the crux of the film. Both his career and the OS provide parallel examples of modern services meant to make life simpler that seem to instead desensitize an over stimulated population. Although this film shows the delight and feverish highs of Theodore’s relationship with “Samantha” through beautiful cinematography, it is clear from the start that his love will end in tragedy.
One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Theodore goes on a blind date set up by his coworker Amy. The woman he meets, who is never given a name, is played by the stunning actress Olivia Wilde. Although she is awkward at first, the close camerawork is intimate rather than suffocating. Their interaction is slow to spark, but develops into a romantic chemistry. However, when she asks him about permanence and commitment he hesitates and recedes. After his failed date he speaks at lengths to “Samantha” about it. It is a subtle reminder than Theordore is retreating from life itself, comforted by the convenience of technology. As time passes, it becomes clear that more people have begun dating their OS, including his only close friend, Amy who is also struggling with her “human” relationship. Towards the end of the film, Theodore descends down the stairs to the subway, with his blue tooth in ear speaking to “Samantha”. As the camera follows him, the same blue tooth can be seen on the various strangers passing him by. This film is less of a cautionary tale, and more of a discourse on the complexity of human intimacy and desire being swept away in the changing tides of modern advancements.
Michel Gondry’s film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) offers another perspective on the romantic drama with a science fiction twist. This film however, begins with the end of a relationship and shows the lengths to which someone will go to forget and suppress their former flame. While the technology in this film is entirely familiar with the exception of the memory-erasing machine from the fictional company, Lacuna Inc. Gondry mixes aspects of life that are entirely relatable into this science fiction story. The film opens completely unremarkably with Joel Barish waking up and commuting to the Long Island Railroad on a Valentines Day like any other, so he thinks. In reality, most of the film is presumed to be Joel’s memories running through his head as he is having them erased. Much of the film is shot in montage with Joel’s narration over top, similarly to how memory is perceived. The non-linear timeline forces to viewer to recall and reorder the scenes to piece together the story just as Joel does.
Although the story mostly works backwards through a relationship retroactively, the flashbacks recall moments of genuine tenderness and pain for Joel and the object of his affections, Clementine. However, just as in Her (2013), the technology meant to soothe proves to be harmful for Joel. The oversimplified solution to a breakup is too permanent for fickle human desire. The film raises other ethical dilemmas through the various relationships in addition to Joel and Clementine’s. For example, Patrick, the Lacuna employee that erases Clementine’s memories falls in love with her and begins dating her. He uses Joel’s journal to relive his experiences with Clementine in order to manipulate her affections, knowing she won’t remember them with Joel. Lacuna’s receptionist Mary, also learns that she had an affair with the married doctor that runs the company, but had all of this memory erased. Even though she had her memories erased, the attraction she had for her boss developed again. Proving, that the system is not only traumatic but also ineffective. Learning of their own pasts, Joel and Clementine decided to try their relationship again, with a somewhat optimistic ending. Although, the greater implication is that their relationship is likely doomed to fail again.
Both of these films and the subgenre of science fiction romantic dramas address an anxiety between technology simultaneously simplifying our lives, but also making things much more complicated, especially in how we interact with one another. I'm not sure how things will be in ten or twenty years, or if these fever dream ideas will ever be realized, but it's something to keep you up at night. To put it simply in the immortal words of 1986 one hit wonder, Timbuk3, "the future's so bright, I gotta wear shades".