The plot arc of Jason Reitman's new film Men, Women, and Children was inspired by Carl Sagan's famous "Pale Blue Dot" speech from Cosmos. Like that speech, the movie is about how we are all just a bunch of self-important monkeys on an insignificant rock floating in space. And that's why we need each other so much.
Reitman's previous films, like Young Adult and Up in the Air, focus on how human relationships are always a bewildering mix of tender and cruel, loving and abusive. There's a pleasing complexity to his storytelling, and he often dares to invite sympathy with characters that other movies would paint as pure villains. Men, Women, and Children offers us a range of such people, teenage and adult, muddling through the ethical gray areas where most of us spend our lives.
And yet there's a kind of comedic grandeur to the proceedings, which begin as we witness the flight of the spacecraft Voyager through the solar system and beyond. In voiceover, Emma Thompson delivers a crisp description of the Voyager's flight, and its last snapshot of the pale, blue dot that is Earth — and then, using the exact same "exploring the cosmos" tone, she introduces us to Don (Adam Sandler), who is attempting to masturbate. He's using his son's computer, she tells us, because his has gotten so clogged with junkware that he can't even look at video anymore.
As Don looks at his son's porn browser history, he has a brief moment of regret that his kid found porn on his own using the internet, rather than discovering a stash of his dad's old magazines the way he had. This kind of half-awkward, half-melancholy honesty sets the tone for the rest of the film, which tracks the ways its characters in a Texas suburb connect (or not) online.
There's the kid who saw Sagan's Pale Blue Dot video on YouTube and decides to quit the football team and get into Guild Wars because "none of it matters on a cosmic scale." There's the girl whose mother is obsessed with monitoring everything she does online, deleting Facebook messages she does not want her to see and tracking her movements with her mobile. And there's the cheerleader who is wasting away from malnutrition, with help from her "friends" in the pro-anorexia forums. Or the ultimate nice boy who can only find the kinky sex he secretly desires on porn sites.
The adults in these teens' lives are equally adrift, trying to find sexual fulfillment by meeting strangers through "cheat on your spouse" websites — or, worse, by living out their fantasies of stardom by creating borderline pornographic websites to promote their kids' acting careers. As they all careen toward emotional meltdowns and strange hookups, Reitman manages to bring out the humanity in all of them, even the meanest and the most desperate.
Based on a novel by Chad Kultgen, and written by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson (who wrote the movie Secretary), the movie reveals how our online identities are bound up deeply with who we are. We are not becoming disconnected from one another — we are connecting differently, sometimes with tragic results and sometimes lifesaving ones. The internet makes new kinds of cruelty possible, but it also fosters new kinds of self-expression for people who would otherwise be boxed in by their isolated lives.
In one scene, we watch from above as a crowd of people swirls through a mall, staring at their phones, with tiny boxes of digital information hovering over their heads. The entire film uses this visual cue — the hovering chat window or news feed over an actor's expressive face — to signal that our characters are always connected by the invisible tissues of a social sphere whose borders, like those of the universe itself, are practically unknowable.
Moving and intense, Men, Women, and Children manages to make us confront uncomfortable realities about ourselves, while also reassuring us that we can also be good people. Even if we make mistakes online or in real life, that glowing social fabric holds us together. No connection is ever perfect, but they can help us through the rough patches just the same.
With its Sagan-inspired theme and focus on technology, this is also part of a new generation of fictional stories about science. It's science fiction about the present, and it works nicely as both an exploration of how technologies develop and what motivates us as human beings.