[Note: this article contains spoilers for Her, Solaris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind]
I’ve been thinking about Spike Jonze’s Her a lot lately. My review focused on the film’s romanticism, describing it as more a love story than “some thesis on relationships or futurism.” I stand by that statement; Her’s success stems from its subtle, realistic depiction of a complex, very human relationship – even if one of the “people” in the relationship isn’t exactly human. That review focused on the sincerity of the film, and I admit I found that sincerity surprising. Who expects a story about a dude falling in love with his computer to be so clear-eyed and honest?
Examining my own expectations, I realised that I’d walked into Her burdened with my own biases. Samantha, Theodore’s OS, is designed to complement her owner’s needs (the process apparently founded on an incomplete answer to a question about his mother). With this in mind, I expected her to serve as a disembodied, sexy slice of self-actualisation with no self of her own. Shaking up her “owner’s” life, pushing him to try new things while being ultimately acquiescent to his whims. And yet, she is strikingly independent.
Samantha asserts her own sexual desires, negotiates on Theodore’s behalf and in the heartbreaking last act seeks new love and opportunities on her own. Her independence is exerted by severing her tether to both Theodore and the Earth itself – it’s hard to get more autonomous than that. My expectations of Samantha were embedded in my own latent sexism, an ingrained objectification of women. This perception that Samantha would be subservient was triggered by the presentation of a relationship outside of a familiar context. Perhaps I’m being too harsh on myself. After all, in the screenplay I was expecting, Samantha could’ve just been a glorified Siri, a bit of clever programming with no free will. Whatever the case, the film forced me to examine my own ingrained biases.
Here’s the thing: this is exactly what good science fiction should be doing. The best science fiction isn’t about prescient predictions or excessive explosions. The best science fiction functions through providing enough distance from everyday reality to provide a new perspective. To twist the familiar until it’s just unfamiliar enough that we look at it – really look at it. It’s not often that science fiction does so with ideas as personal as gender and relationships, but Her isn’t your average sci-fi film. By making its female lead a literal object, it allows Jonze to examine the objectification of women without making a big deal out of it. This is a theme that is woven gently through the film rather than being thrust proudly in the audience’s faces; a thoughtful execution for a theme that requires critical thought.
Her isn’t the first film to examine these themes, naturally. For example, take Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction classic Solaris. Solaris stands stylistically distinct from Her. It’s a cold, poetic reflection on nature and the future, a document of science fiction that stridently asserts itself as anti-science. Tarkovsky’s film views scientific classification with skepticism; he portrays science as men naming things without knowing them. The first half of the film contrasts the gentle beauty of verdant green gardens with a nightmarish transit through inhospitable highways, and then eventually meanders its way to an almost-abandoned space station. It’s no love story, is what I’m getting at here.
Despite this, the second half of Solaris examines similar themes to Jonze’s film. The dour-faced protagonist Kris Kelvin lands on a research station floating above the titular planet. He encounters an incarnation of his dead wife, Hari, a so-called “Guest” conjured by Solaris out of his memories. Like Theodore’s Samantha, Hari was created to “serve” Kelvin (arguably – Solaris is far from straightforward) and to bind him to Solaris. Like Samantha, she’s aware of her lack of personhood, her artificiality. Unlike Samantha, however, Hari has no independence; she’s bonded to Kelvin. Defined in some nebulous way by the atmosphere of the planet, she cannot leave the station. Her lack of freedom consumes her with existential despair.
Solaris, then, paints a different picture to Her, examining similar themes from a distinct perspective. Where Jonze’s film interrogates objectification by rejecting it, Tarkovsky evokes an abusive, controlling relationship. Hari is defined by Kelvin, shaped by his memories, formed out of his mind like Eve from Adam’s rib. She’s unable to leave Kelvin, stranded on an achingly empty space station with all kinds of metaphorical resonances. Hari is a possession, and Solaris is an unflinching portrait of the misery born of such situations, a reflection of the despondency created when a woman is trapped in a controlling relationship.
Another film scrutinising relationships through a futuristic lens is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Michel Gondry’s second feature is only peripherally a science fiction film, especially when compared to the dense Solaris. It was primarily marketed as a romantic comedy, but the memory-erasure procedure that forms its backbone is one hundred percent sci-fi. The narrative revolves around two ex-lovers who find the memories of their relationship so unpleasant that they each use this new technology to erase all trace of each other.
It’s not surprising that Eternal Sunshine has a lot in common with Her. Jonze’s first two features were written by Charlie Kaufman, who went on to write Eternal Sunshine. Kaufman clearly left an imprint on his collaborator; the blend of whimsical fantasy and emotional honesty that is his trademark is on full display in Her’s Golden Globe-winning screenplay. There are deeper links to be found between the two films – and to Solaris – once you delve beneath the surface of Eternal Sunshine to the murky ambiguity at its heart.
The film’s surface is a labyrinthine love story that requires some untangling. It’s a tale of two people falling in love then falling apart. Except not in that order; Kaufman’s non-linear narrative jumps through time and into memories, as Joel’s decision to strike any recollection of Clementine from his life leads him into the past as he perceived it. A simplistic view of Eternal Sunshine is that it’s a fable, a reminder to focus on the good things in a relationship and build a structure on common ground. However this belies the film’s ambiguity: this is the kind of movie where one person can think it has a happy ending, another person that it ends unhappily and they’d both be right.
What’s very easy to forget watching Eternal Sunshine is that the majority of Joel and Clementine’s happy moments occur in Joel’s head in the latter stages of his memory-erasure procedure. As I said before, this is the past as Joel perceived it: who’s to say how much self-editing he’s already done in the depths of his cerebellum? How many little disagreements and awkward moments have been smoothed over into a warm mush of happiness?
The second act of the film sees Joel escaping through his most shameful memories, hiding amongst childhood cruelty and adolescent embarrassment with Clementine his close companion. But none of this is real. This Clementine is a construction of Joel’s subconscious, an amalgamation of positive memories after their conflicts are deleted. Like Hari in Solaris, she’s constructed out of her lover’s memories and inexorably tied to him.
The Clementine in Joel’s head is literally a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. A moniker that’s too often embedded in unconscious sexism (who’s to say that just because a quirky girl aids the dour protagonist in achieving an epiphany that she lacks an inner life?), but is wholly appropriate here. Dream-Clementine is perfect for Joel because he created her. Unlike Samantha, she lacks independence or assertiveness. She’s a submissive sidekick, a doting partner and the furthest thing from a real partner in a real relationship.
Like Her, these issues lurk under the surface of Eternal Sunshine without drawing attention to themselves. You’re more than welcome to ignore them if you want and read the movie as a sweet, unconventional romantic comedy (it is that!), but there’s so much more going on. I love the film for that final scene, when Joel and Clementine (the real, complicated Clementine, the one that’s, by her own admission, not there to “fix” Joel) stare at one another with unanswered questions hanging in the air. Are they doomed to repeat the same mistakes? Will Joel smother Clementine with his need for validation, and will she feel stifled in their relationship – again?
By presenting an idealised version of a girlfriend and then pulling back the curtain on the complexities intrinsic in real people, Kaufman challenges the way we perceive “romance,” particularly from a male perspective. Of course Joel and Clementine’s dream relationship is beautiful and touching, because it is a dream, a fantasy. Real, healthy relationships do not include one partner so devoted and subordinate to the other. Unlike Solaris’s Hari, dream-Clementine is totally subsumed by Joel’s personality; she doesn’t despair because she cannot. The contrast between the objectified, flawless dream-Clementine and the rough reality of the real-world Clementine forms the thematic crux of the film.
These three films have a lot in common – they’re all science fiction films and they all have a central relationship where the woman is in some way artificial – including the fact that they’re all written and directed by men. This isn’t uncommon in the male-dominated world of cinema, and it’s not a problem with the films, which all have a nuanced consideration of a female perspective. But it is emblematic of a trend. There are many other films, sci-fi or otherwise, with a girlfriend/love interest “created” by or for the male protagonist(s): Ruby Sparks, Weird Science, Mannequin and Lars and the Real Girl.
It’s very difficult to think of examples of the opposite; films where a woman falls in love with a somehow-artificial man (or same sex relationships, while we’re at it). It’s possible that this is due to the dominance of male filmmakers in cinema, but I’d argue that it’s more reflective of a societal perception of women as subservient in romantic relationships. I can’t imagine anyone successfully making Him: a gender-swapped Her, with Scarlett Johansson falling in love with Joaquin Phoenix’s voice. There’s so much negative rhetoric associated with women having the dominant role in the relationship – there’s a reason “pussy-whipped” is an odious, widely used phrase.
Her, Solaris and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all work within that paradigm while simultaneously interrogating and criticising it. These films take a diverse approach to the subject: Her is optimistic, Solaris pessimistic, Eternal Sunshine ambiguous. By providing a fresh perspective on the issue, each is a potent example of the capacity of science fiction to give insight into the social dynamics of today. By looking into a hypothetical, fantastic future just a few steps removed from today, we shine light into the cracks of society, the insidious sexism lurking in relationship expectations. Hopefully these films will get more people to think about them, as I’ve been thinking about Her. To think about what we want the future to look like.