Her vs. The Circle: The Dangers of Trying to Remain Plugged In

Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers try to comment on our relationship with technology, but only underscore their own irrelevance

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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

There comes a point in every artist’s career at which she reveals, entirely by accident, that she got old while you weren’t paying attention. For one, it’s a song that sounds too much like what he’s done before; you realize that he’s playing it safe, trying to relive past glories. For another, it’s an awkward attempt to jump onboard some bandwagon that she clearly doesn’t enjoy or even understand. And then, for Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, it’s trying to use their work to address the encroaching importance of technology in modern life.

Jonze’s Her, a wistful romance in which a man falls in love with a Siri-like virtual personal assistant named Samantha, received its wide release last week, but its U.S. premiere at last year’s New York Film Festival came within days of the release of Eggers’ The Circle, a novel about life within a tech company that’s part Google, part Facebook and part Jonestown. Her offers a less pessimistic take on man’s relationship with machines in the near future than The Circle does, though both address the increased separation between people and the ways in which the technology can be both a cause and solution for that. That the two would end up working in such similar areas simultaneously isn’t exactly a surprise — this is familiar ground for both, and they’ve experienced such parallel themes at times in the past.

(MORE: Richard Corliss Reviews Her)
The Circle and Her start from very similar places, with lead characters finding themselves “outside” the world in a way that makes them feel lonely and helpless. Both characters find that technology offers a reprieve from that loneliness. For Eggers, the underside of such a solution is obvious — the Circle’s Benevolent Big Brother nature is cartoonishly painted, as is the impact lead character Mae’s increased connection to the Net has on her existing personal relationships — but Jonze takes a more ambivalent, romantic approach; for him, the nebulous Samantha (“It’s not just an O.S., it’s a consciousness,” viewers are told) is not something to fear but something to be in awe of. Eggers represents a Luddite-esque tendency to instinctively value “real” interactions over virtual ones, while Jonze remains unsure, suggesting that both may be equally valid — or, more controversially, that the virtual relationship may be more fulfilling for some.

There is, to be fair, something worth applauding in that both men are at least addressing these shifting sands in their own ways, instead of purposefully avoiding it and continuing to create work that seems increasingly divorced from the world in which the audience lives. (For example: Every single romantic comedy in which neither of the new lovers tries to use social media or even Google to try and discover more about the mysterious new person in their lives.) If nothing else, they should be congratulated for realizing that there’s a gap out there for mainstream books, movies and more that deal with this kind of subject.

And yet, both Her and The Circle remain in the realm of fantasy. Neither creator seems entirely clear on the technology they’re discussing, although that’s very possibly the result of not wanting to destroy the audience’s suspension of disbelief with details (The Circle, when it gets specific, also tends to get things wrong to a distracting extent; Eggers has talked about the lack of research he did before writing the book, and it shows all too clearly at times). Whatever the reason, that unwillingness — or, perhaps, inability — to go into detail undermines the verisimilitude of the work; what should be a story that “could” happen in our world becomes only slightly more realistic than one with magic or super powers. As a result, Her and The Circle have an strange air about them, as if they’ve been created by people who are suddenly aware of their own disconnection from the zeitgeist and oncoming irrelevance to the wider world.