Her (2013): Our Orange Future

In Spike Jonze’s Her, there is an over-abundance of the color orange. It appears on lampshades and walls. It is the color of Theodore’s goddaughter’s house and the dress he and Samantha give her. It is in lights on the street in the background, carpets in the middleground, and shirts in the foreground. It is true there are lots of “red-oriented” hues in the movie, and apparently there was a conscious attempt to keep out blues altogether, but I think orange holds a special place.

In the first scene in the movie, in Theodore’s workplace, there are orange walls and floors, and, later, the OS that ends up being Samantha is orange. What connects these two? If we start with the OS, orange might represent technology, or his eventual love for Samantha. However, there is an important link between what he does for living and the technology represented by the OS: both are emotionally artificial.

Theodore writes letters of emotion for other people. They are, therefore, lies, or, to be more particular, they are like very specific greeting cards. The emotions expressed are real emotions, and both the writer and the person on whose behalf he is writing can experience those emotions. So it isn’t proper to say that these letters cannot really express the emotions their senders have, because they might. If successful, in fact, they do. Jonze is getting an interesting aspect of our empathetic ability, namely that we can put ourselves in someone else’s place and imagine their feelings because both of us are humans. You and I share the same physiology and therefore we can both feel the same feelings.

I think the best way to describe the letters, therefore, is artificial. Kind of like artificial flavoring in food, which (and this may be an over-simplification as I am not a chemist) is based on the same chemical that provides that flavoring naturally, but just happens to be produced artificially. In other words, natural and artificial flavors have the same chemical make-up. The difference is in where they come from. Are they created naturally by a plant, or are they made in a lab in imitation of the original?

Samantha essentially presents the same challenge to our idea of emotional authenticity. Does she feel? She says she does, and it is clear that in this movie world her computing power is great enough to rival, and eventually, surpass our brains. Emotions, like all thoughts, are products of our brains, products of neurons firing in certain patterns. If a computer has enough artificial neurons, the result is indistinguishable from “real” emotions.

I believe the presence of orange, therefore, signals that we are dealing with artificial emotions. At this point, I’d typically bombard the reader with a onslaught of examples, but I have to confess that I saw the movie last night for the first time, and unless I see it again I’m not going have the weight of evidence I’d like to have. (Hopefully there’s nothing here that is misremembered. Be kind!)

But I would note that I do not remember other people that Theodore passes on the street, or his friends, or his soon-to-be-ex-wife wearing orange, a color that he seems to favor. Note, however, that when Amy Adams is at her job, orange is again present. At this point in the movie she is in a relationship with her husband's OS, but it is also an aspect of her work in computer games to deal with artificial realities, including emotions. (Theodore’s alien “friend” in his video game is a great example – he has more of personality than many of the real people in the movie.)

Let’s look at one of the more pivotal scenes. When Theodore meets his wife, Catherine, to sign the divorce papers, he has on a plaid shirt, with orange as part of the plaid. Since we have seen him in solid orange shirts, I thought this was interesting – he is in a relationship with an OS and meeting his flesh-and-blood wife, and the shirt represents that conflict with its combination of orange and non-orange lines. This is pivotal scene because there are indications in Catherine’s body language that she is open to reconciliation: she’s a little teary, she’s clearly affectionate towards Theodore when they meet, and she hesitates before signing the divorce papers. He misses all of those (real) emotional signs, and even blunders into revealing to her that he is in a relationship with an OS. Her emotional reaction to this news also signals that she still has strong feelings for him. In the end, her (real) outburst leads him to doubt his own ability to handle real people (and real emotions), and to doubt Samantha’s capacity to have real emotions.

Catherine is (logically) completely non-orange. Orange was also absent when we see Theodore outside near the cabin when he goes on vacation with Samantha. I recall some orange (limited, though) in the cabin, but outside, in the most natural environment in the movie, no orange. One could argue this is simply a way of depicting this forest accurately, but I would rather say that orange is a good choice to represent something artificial because it is not a common color in nature.

Both Theodore’s meeting with his wife and the scene at the cabin lead to rifts in his relationship with Samantha. While at the cabin her relationship with other OS’s develops. This leads to her evolution, which eventually results in her leaving. When she “goes off with her new friends,” he takes a walk in the woods (no orange!) where he must face his feelings of jealousy, fear, and loneliness. The irony is that this process the relationship goes through is so much like a human relationship. Theodore does not change, but Samantha does – new friends, new interests, growing and changing until literally they cannot communicate.

Beyond this layer, I see something else, however, and this brings us to pants. Yes, pants. Why do many of the male characters wear these odd pants, no belt, pulled up high? Come to think of it, the female characters don’t fare much better – they dress oddly, with button up shirts (Catherine) and odd hairdos (Amy). Theodore’s date just doesn’t even look like a regular person, something Jonze emphasizes with extreme close-ups of her face.

Back to the pants, though. I am reminded of the costumes on, say, Star Trek, or other sci-fi movies and shows, where unusual clothing are used to signify “we’re in the future.” This world that Jonze has created, though, is a muted futuristic world. It subtly shouts (if you’ll allow that contradiction) “we’re in the future.” In brief: we are in some idealized version of the near future. There’s no crime in the movie, no violence, no obvious government (let alone some kind of big brother), no war. In this world, a writer of other people’s letters lives in a large apartment with stunning views in a sparsely populated apartment high rise, and can easily afford cutting edge tech. Something is not right about this.

Theodore and the contacts in his life, especially his two friends, Amy and Charles, behave oddly. Like a computer program, Theodore and his co-workers take information – who the people are, what the situation is, some detail like a crooked tooth – and generate an output: a letter. Meanwhile, Amy seems to think that a documentary of her mother sleeping might reveal a deeper understanding about her dreams. And her husband Charles is equally clueless, suggesting she hire actors to film her mother’s dreams as if that is somehow a substitute for his wife’s (does he even know her?) idea for a documentary. At Amy’s job she makes a video game about regular life, which is really a parody of regular life. Like her documentary, it’s as if she is trying to figure out regular life with this video game. Although there is some truth in “class mom,” it’s not quite right – your kids don’t go crazy when eating their cereal if you turn your back for a moment. Charles, the know-it-all who over instructs Theodore on fruits and vegetables, leaves his wife to join some monks and take a vow of silence. He’s vacillating from one extreme to the other. On seeing Amy’s reaction to his fruits and veggies lecture, he asks, “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” Neither of his two states, hyper-verbalizing on minutia or taking a vow of silence, are “inhuman” – there are people who do both of things, although rarely the same person – but neither behavior is in the middle of the bell curve. What is wrong with these people?

It is clear that in the movie they are real people, but in their behavior, they exist somewhere between regular people and these new Operating Systems. They are real people with real emotions, but somehow they lack something in the empathy department. Even Paul and his girlfriend’s (and Amy’s and the surrogate’s) positive reaction to Theodore’s relationship with an OS strikes us as odd. Only Catherine seems to react “correctly.” Notice too how Theodore’s flashback scenes with Catherine contain so much more emotional content (between the two characters) that the rest of the movie.

Most of the movie takes places in this oddly clean future mentioned above; it even infects the “cabin the woods” scenes – the natural world has been “futurized” as well. One of the few times in the movie that the setting seems ordinary and non-futuristic is the scene at the beach. There are lots of people there –it may be the only crowd scene in the movie – and they look like ordinary people spending time at the beach. Notice that only Theodore is not dressed for the beach, and he does not interact with anyone while there. He is entirely an observer. Samantha’s one disappointment is a lack of a body, but in this scene it is as if Theodore’s physical form is apparent only to us. Her presence as merely an observer in his pocket is no different than his. He might as well also be a disembodied entity.

I’m not prepared to go too far with this line of thinking. I don’t believe Theodore is also an OS, for example, although that’s a fun trip to try out. However, during the time we know him in the movie he is relearning how to be an emotionally connected human. Samantha is his emotional surrogate in that journey, mirroring the physical surrogate they employ. Amy’s story parallels his to a great extent – separation from a spouse, a relationship with an OS. Other characters fare better (Paul gets a girlfriend who seems pretty normal) or worse (Charles, as mentioned) along the “human” spectrum. And perhaps the progress Theodore and Amy make is a mirror of the evolution Samantha goes through.

At the end of the movie, Samantha has left for the next stage in her evolution. Presumably Amy’s OS has as well. She and Theodore connect as humans on the roof of their building. They talk without words, reading each other emotionally, emphatically. They sit side by side, she leans on him, he puts his arm around her, and we notice his shirt is white. There is not a speck of orange to be seen.

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Copyright © 2013, David Heuser
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