Alex Baca works on sustainable land use, transportation, and housing policy in the D.C. region. She has written for Washington City Paper, Slate, The American Conservative, Cleveland Magazine, Strong Towns, and Greater Greater Washington. Views here are her own.
The film may be set in L.A., but cars take a back seat.
It’s true that, since the recession at least, we’re driving less, and that younger Americans are actively seeking to avoid driving at all. Yet cars are still the way the vast majority of our country gets around.
So it’s jarring to notice that in filmmaker Spike Jonze’s vision of our not-so-distant urban future, the critically acclaimed Her, cars are relegated to tiny, ant-like dots on distant overpasses.
Her is set in Los Angeles, that bastion of car culture—romanticized, impractical, or otherwise. And there’s no absence of traffic: Specks clearly made to signify automobiles move serenely along ribbons of highway. (The infrastructure’s there, too: One of the lead character’s memories of his ex-wife shows the two gently battering each other with orange traffic cones, on their heads, on an abandoned freeway ramp.) But within 10 minutes of the movie’s beginning, we understand that our protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly, commutes to work on a spotless, warmly lit metro.
So does everyone else.
Jonze made a raft of intentional aesthetic choices to make Her feel as dreamy as it is. The cinematography almost entirely leaves out the color blue. While it’s set in L.A., substantial parts were filmed in Shanghai, so the urban backdrop is denser and more anonymous. He consulted with the designers of the High Line, which clearly influences the public spaces Theo moves through. Wide plazas—often outside of transit stations—are bordered by low walls and minimalist landscaping. The metro stations through which Theo weaves, and the turnstiles through which he exits, are original to L.A.'s current light rail. As odd as it may seem that Angelenos wouldn’t even consider cars an option, it’s a familiar-enough setting that it’s not completely out of left field.
And yet, the even more familiar tropes of Hollywood romances do make the choice to all but omit cars from the landscape a strange experience. Think of the auto-centric emotive scenes and images we’ve seen, not to mention personally experienced, so many times before: the resting of a hand on the back of a driver’s neck, the grabbing of a companion’s hand across the emergency brake. A kiss, sometimes for the first time, while saying goodnight in the vehicle that, hours before, picked up a heroine at her front door. A couple rides in the car together, heading into an unknown but exciting future, and maybe there’s a song playing, or maybe it’s comfortable silence. And when it’s over, there’s the private car cry: He parks and presses his forehead to the steering wheel, cocooned from the harsh reality of other people in 4,000 pounds of metal and glass.
Her is about many things: love, technology, loss, the future, and the past. As Theo navigates life as a divorced guy dating an operating system, we see him navigate a Los Angeles that’s radically different than the one we know (or the one we imagine when we say “L.A.”). Samantha, the operating system in question, accompanies Theo to art museums, outdoor promenades, and the beach; her lack of a body doesn’t prevent Theo from showing her the world from his perspective, and that world is as corporeal as anything we know now.
Just as swiftly as I noticed Her’s characters depended on trains, the realization faded—because the way everyone moves around is natural. Theo and Amelia walk after their date; when she flees, Theo is left standing among strangers. In perhaps the only moment where there’s a defined passenger and driver, Theo puts Isabel into a cab, after their failed tryst. Amy and Theo have contained, intimate conversations in their building’s elevator or in Amy’s studio. There’s a boat ride. And when Theo travels out of L.A., it’s in a train—which allows him to drink in the scenery and talk to Samantha, who prods him to guess how many trees are on a passing mountaintop.
Though Theo is rarely literally alone—in his airy apartment, he’s often talking to Samantha and, of course, in his daily life he’s in routine contact, or at least in view of, other human beings—Her magnificently illustrates how isolating it can be to exist in public. When Samantha goes missing, briefly, Theo is distraught, tripping through plazas and eventually coming to rest on a subway station’s steps. People stream past Theo to get wherever they’re going, and we can only speculate as to whether the rest of L.A. experienced the same failure with their own OS’s.
Her is in the near future (2025, we think), so it’s just out of reach enough to be science fiction. But there’s no value judgment placed on the reliance on public transit. Its omnipresence, its cleanliness, its ubiquity, and its ability to set moods isn’t treated as an ideal, and there’s no evident agenda to make cities more transit-heavy. Much like Theo’s falling in love with the all-but-embodied Samantha, it’s nothing more than the way things are.