Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
I finally saw Her this week and now all I can think about is Fight Club. Surface-level, I’ll admit: Not much in common. Fight Club is badass and bloody and chilly and exhaustively cool. Her is mournful and sweet and confessional and strenuously twee. Fight Club is a dude movie about dudes who can’t stop talking about what dudes they are; Helena Bonham Carter plays the local representative of The Female Gender as a Manic Pixie Dream Madonna-Whore Complex. Her is about one man surrounded by women: An ex-wife, a bad date, a best friend, a woman who is everywhere and nowhere at once.
But the two movies rhyme somehow. Ed Norton in Fight Club isn’t too different from Joaquin Phoenix in Her: They’re both lonely guys with banal-chic office jobs and chic-banal apartments. They wander through gorgeously art-directed mega-cities that are sort of Los Angeles and sort of near-future and sort of nowhere and everywhere all at once. They both have imaginary friends who complete them but also challenge them.
Both films feel like they have A Lot To Say about the modern era. That’s obviously true of Fight Club, where half the running time is monologues by Brad Pitt that all sound retroactively like particularly energetic TED talks. Nobody really makes speeches in Her; Joaquin Phoenix gives another one of those performances where the mere act of completing a sentence reads like a triumph of the human spirit. But anyone who spends any considerable portion of their day on the internet recognizes how Her keys into our contemporary life. It takes all the barely understood social norms of our digital moment — online dating, start-up business culture, Siri, Google Glass, the normalization of casual gaming, the renormalization of mustaches — and ages it forward into conventionality.
They’re both Big Idea movies, presenting worldviews through the perspective of their lonely-boy heroes. Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is a spiritual descendant of Norton’s nameless narrator — although since Norton is only a few years older than Phoenix, it’s probably more accurate to consider them contemporaries. Norton shot Fight Club when he was 29, and you can read the film as a kind of death-metal quarter-life crisis. Her, by comparison, is filled with thirtysomething bruises. (It’s a divorce movie.)
And then there, lurking just over the shoulders of the onscreen protagonists, are the directors. David Fincher and Spike Jonze both came up through the ’90s music-video renaissance. They have almost nothing in common stylistically and barely even seem to occupy the same dimensional sphere, but their films share a certain rigid stylistic exactitude. You imagine that Fincher spent days getting Brad Pitt’s jacket just the right shade of red, and you imagine Jonze spending months finding just the right balance of red-orange for Joaquin Phoenix’s shirt and computer and lampshade combo.
When you put the two films together, they tell the story of a certain kind of contemporary person — urban, male, upper-middle or just upper, utterly desperate and possibly suicidal. Both movies are rife with anxiety. It’s there all over Fight Club. There were better movies released in 1999, but I’m not sure there’s another movie that more accurately conjures up the terror lingering beneath the surface of pre-millennium America. We’re in a cultural phase now that prefers to recall the ’90s with rampant nostalgia — understandable, given the very real terrors that waited in the next decade — but Fight Club is not a happy movie. The protagonist works in a pre-Google cubicle farm that suggests Dilbert rebooted into post-apocalypse.
The men in the movie are frustrated with, well, everything. But especially women. You could make the argument that both Fight Club and Her represent a certain kind of male fantasy. Fight Club has been so appropriated by frathouse culture that it’s easy to overlook just how weird its perspective on sexuality is. In one of the film’s more quotable scenes, Brad Pitt says: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is really the answer we need.”
He says this while taking a bath, talking to Ed Norton, who’s just hangin’ out a couple feet away. It’s like the Generation X version of the Snails & Oysters scene from Spartacus. It’s not clear if the subtext is intentional. Idea-wise, Fight Club is sort of a sawed-off shotgun. This is why, when I was a teenager in 1999, I thought Fight Club was the awesomest movie of all time. A decade and a half later, the film has aged weirdly. Most of its concerns feel cliché. (IKEA, amiright guys?) It’s very much an Angry White Man movie, the kind of film that Michael Douglas used to make all the time. Project Mayhem is either a deconstruction of fascism or accidentally fascist. It makes punching people look absolutely beautiful. The film ends with a man and a woman holding hands staring at a city exploding in front of them. It might actually be a happy ending.
So it’s a young man’s movie, and it’s also a ’90s movie. In Her, the new world has long since arrived. Los Angeles looks like Shanghai. Everyone spends at least half their life online. There’s a sense that everything can be crowdsourced. (Love letters are written for you.) Like Norton, Phoenix’s Theodore spends much of Her in conversation with a character who’s not quite real. Samantha isn’t Tyler Durden, but she kind of is. She’s not just in Theodore’s head, but she exists purely to react to Theodore’s will. (Samantha’s interaction with other OS figures — which occurs very distantly in the movie — almost feels like a more pacifistic Project Mayhem.)
And whereas Fight Club ultimately buys completely into its protagonist’s worldview — culminating in the weird moment of self-realization via semi-suicide — Her offers all kinds of challenges for Theodore. His ex-wife thinks he’s half a lunatic for falling in love with a computer. Samantha’s steady rise to consciousness transforms her from an ideal dream-girl to a genuine girlfriend — and all of the romantic complications that implies. (At one point, she stops taking Theodore’s calls.)
It feels a little bit like Fight Club — for all its bluster and swagger and the 2-a.m.-at-a-rave Dust Brothers soundtrack — is a movie about fear. And Her — for all its dreamy sadness and melancholy dust mites and the 2-a.m.-in-your-bedroom-crying-over-a-breakup Arcade Fire soundtrack — is a movie about acceptance. The former feels a bit like a pre-apocalyptic film, where the characters ultimately feel more comfortable burning the world to the ground and starting over.
Her finds that same world a few years and several cultural eons later, a world where it’s possible to build yourself a very happy island. (Norton’s monochrome-corporate office is replaced by Phoenix’s color-blasted start-up.) It’s post-dystopian, in a way: The story of someone living in a world that only barely resembles reality as our grandparents understood it, who nevertheless engages in a serious attempt to achieve some kind of human connection.
If Fight Club is about the thrill of isolationism — of cutting yourself off from a world gone mad — then Her tries to rediscover the thrill of entanglement, and of making a genuine connection. Like Fight Club, Her ends with a man and a woman staring out at the skyline of a metropolis. In Fight Club, the man takes the woman’s hand. In Her, the woman puts her head on the man’s shoulder.
In Fight Club, the city falls away, making way for some new world. It’s a fantasy — and an attractive one, anticipating our whole modern vogue for post-breakdown sci-fi adventures. In Her, the city remains. Maybe Her is more pessimistic: This strange world is here, and we can’t do anything about it. Or maybe it’s actually saying: This strange world is here, but at least we’re in it together.