Movie Review: ‘Operator’ asks us to take a chance, ‘we’ll get through this together’

Taking risks is scary. One person wants to call and quit her job, because she feels like it would be a good idea in the moment. Another guy shoves his friend out of the way, so he can take a photo of the same thing he’s been taking photos of for the last 300 days.

Some people embrace change more readily than others, and sometimes you just need an anchor in your life.

That’s what Logan Kibens’s Operator is trying to make us think about.

Basic Outline

Husband and wife have their routines. A shift at Joe’s work, forces him to take a different tact and ultimately introduce his wife into his work. Emily starts acting in a comedy show on the side, where she starts incorporating her relationship with Joe into her skits. As a result, a distance grows between them, leading them to focus on themselves and push the other away, because they’re not getting what they want from the relationship. She wanted him to be the table she tied her balloon to and he wanted her to be the familiar body of water he took comfort in every day.

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Comic skit of her partnet taking her lifeforce via balloon whilst not listening to her via IndieWire

When the levee breaks

“I like looking at your charts. They’re so pretty.”
– Emily Klein in Operator (2016)

It started out as a screenplay, and it feels like a story you’d find onstage. What with the callout to repetition. He liked doing the same thing every day, running, opening the curtain to her office to give her a peck, then one day finding things had changed, he programmed a more predictable version of her. One he could rely on day after day.

It’s also confusing for her, seeing as how he embraced her acting gig by sectioning off an office for her to write in, but then again, maybe part of him was pushing her into a quiet corner so he could get his own work done. It’s only when he really needs her, like, physically needs her to lay on top of him, that he goes to look for her.

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Joe has frequent panic attacks. Emily alleviates his pain by laying on top of him and saying, “I’m here. I’m with you.”

There’s a certain weight to relationships. The burden. The chain, the string. The calming body of water that’s always churning and changing, yet may appear the same on the surface day to day.

Perhaps they both got caught up in themselves. She wanted to leave her dead-end desk job and he wanted to create a way to keep her forever.

Being present

It’s about being there vs texting a person or calling them. The emily he created was a filter, a siv, to sift out all the spontaneity, leaving her a shiny shell housing an equation he liked to pluck at.

In his charts, he put a pin in the “sex” category, after he jerked off to the Welltrex version of his wife, while the automated system just said the same thing over and over again. Recording this moment in his charts as “having sex”, this shows he considered the program equal to his wife at this point.

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A small sampling of Joe’s charts.

Substitution, stability, and change

“Things change. It’s scary, but it can also be invigorating.”
– Joe Larson in Operator (2016)

Operator is a movie that makes you think, “Do I really want to be with this person?”, “What if they change and I don’t change?”, “What if I change and they don’t change?”

There is a pivotal point where Emily’s having a crap day and Joe comes in and talks over her and she says she needs a few minutes to herself. I felt hurt, like that’s where the relationship started to take a turn, when one person closes themselves off from the other. Experience says, this can be healthy, to recognize one person’s need to shut down and be still when they feel a struggle coming on, where another will go for a run.

Substitution

We feel bad for Emily, during this scene, but who’s in the wrong? Who’s substituting who? Is she substituting his for the love of an audience? People who she can spill her guts to with little to no repercussions, people who she may never see again? Through the medium of acting, she still gets that cathartic release, because they listen to her, when he doesn’t.

Just as the fake Emily listens to Joe, when the real one doesn’t.

Change

It just comes back to change. Sometimes in relationships, you’re all over each other. There’s passion, there’s fire. Other times you push people away. You hold onto the thought of who you thought they were, without fully embracing who they are today.

Thankfully, in the end, both Joe and Emily admit they have both changed. Emily says she can’t go back to the person she was before, she can’t be in service to anyone anymore.

In the process, they also learned a lot about themselves.

The data doesn’t lie

The movie pits the woman as the victim, for the most part, but I want to stick up for Joe here, for a second. It’s in his nature to count things. It might have started when he was a child, marking the windowsill for every time his father said he’d be there, then he’d make another mark for when he actually showed up. Joe has abandonment issues.

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As a kid, Joe marked the windowsill for every time his dad promised he would come home, and for every time his dad actually did.

He relies on data. It never lets him down. He learned to cope with the fact his dad lied about seeing him 70 percent of the time, so he wouldn’t be disappointed the next seven times his dad didn’t show up.

Joe wants to quantify his life with Emily to prove that they are compatible, that she would never leave him. That’s why he focuses on the phrases “I’m here,” and “I’m with you” when voicing commands to the Welltrex system version of Emily.

Seeing what this was doing to him, Emily fought back. In her own way.

There was one scene in the car when they were mentally preparing to administer his mom a shot and he was freaking out and she began to say, “I’m he–” and hesitated, cutting off her own sentiment, pulling away, know she was telling him what he wanted to hear.

It’s a debate between living in the moment vs. holding onto the past, or imagining an ideal future.

She tells him his mom asked whether they planned on having babies, and he continues to ignore her proceeding to text the fake her.

Music

Music plays a large role in this movie. It opens with a tune comprised of chirps and peeps, layered with effects that slooooww down the beat to a spectral halt, letting you know these sounds were all made on the computer. Our main character’s on his daily run. The electronic music coincides with his inner psyche, whatever he’s mulling over. Is he thinking about programming? Electronic music says yes.

Later, we’ll see Joe in the same spot during his run, when he realizes he can’t get to his wife via an automated system on someone else’s phone. he realized he needed herhis version of her. the way he knows her. like no one else. that’s when the music changes, and you can suddenly hear the human hand upon a set of ivories, plucking tentatively, letting notes hang where they shouldn’t, sustain starts to warble, and it’s off time.

He realizes he should’ve been there for her. At her shows. When she needed him. She got used to his not being there, which created a chasm between them. They drifted apart. But, she also used him in her work, almost exploiting him so that she could get applause, she could get a laugh out of her struggle with him. If everything were going great, would she be as good an actress? She even said, the night of her first show, while drunk, that she wouldn’t have done it without him.

Aesthetic

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I really like the unaware-of-itself presence the surroundings lend to the film. It’s as if people actually live here, they’re not plotting some grand scenario where one scene captures the high fashion of the modern elite. No, this is just a regular radiator near a regular chair, with an ottoman, and so what if the wallpaper doesn’t mesh with the furniture? I like flowers. Deal with it.

The aesthetic–which is a hot word on Tumblr right meow–is all about 90s grunge, with floral patterns and washed out hues, low contrast whites and blacks. And this makes us comfortable. Our generation? Maybe there are a few watching right now, but who is it to say one person’s in Generation X vs. Y, etc.? All I’m saying, is it’s very relaxing and homey to see a woman in overalls talking to a lady smoking a cigarette in a floral-pattern chair, just chillin’ thinking about babies, and the future, and such. They nailed the colors and overall aesthetic of the movie. Just sayin’.

Breaking the fourth wall

“We invite participation. We can’t afford to have a fourth wall.”
– actor introducing cast of comedy writers on stage

Usually when watching these relationship movies, I feel like i’m one or the other. I root for a character and do a little mental jousting with the other, vicariously. In Operator, I felt like I was both of them: The monotone quantifier and the bleeding heart writer.

I might say I’m a spontaneous person, and I like the random turn taken while on long walk. I like getting lost, I usually end up finding myself, then find my way back again. But I must admit there is something comforting in knowing you’ll wake up Sunday morning and have coffee with your love. But what if after 10 weeks of this same occurrence, one person sleeps in and the other occupies their time by writing, blabbing on about a movie she can’t quite nail down. Then the other wakes up and works on his own writing and you’re scared. Is he working on something more important than what I’m working on? Are his words better than mine? Am I paying enough attention to him, in real life, and am I spending too much time writing about him, without actually talking to him, though I feel like we’re mutually participating in the conversation because perhaps he’ll read it later?

I think that pretty much sums up the movie, in my head. See, now I’m playing the role of Emily and using him in my work, while also playing the role of Joe, and recording data to be analyzed later so I can read back through this blog to see which movie we watched that one Saturday night that made us cry uncontrollably. “Oh, the one about the dude who records his wife’s voice, so she can comfort him when she’s not there? Lemme check my blog real quick. That was like, March, right, when we watched that?”

Who’s the bad guy here?

And the night the prototype of the app was released. He told her to be there at the fancy-schmancy unveiling. Emily looked swanky, too, in a neutral brown dress. He really should’ve invited the real Emily up on stage when he said, “This is the real Emily,” but instead, he told everyone they got a free trial of the software on their phones. And she looked nice, people. What’s up with that…

You have a choice

Operator is a film meant to make you uncomfortable. It’s a movie about taking risks and trusting the other person in the relationship will appreciate what you’re doing to either get ahead in their career or fulfill their need for a deeper connection with people, even if they don’t know how to communicate, or especially if they communicate too well.

It is scary. What if you change? What if you become an entirely different person over the course of a relationship? Can you ever say, we married too soon, or she isn’t supporting me, or they’re not who I thought they were. Well, choices have to be made. Joe said everyone makes thousands of choices each day.

Mae Whitman was in Scott Pilgrim. She has no qualms with doing whatever the role requires, I think. Martin Starr was in Superbad and Knocked Up, but also a ton of TV shows, too. They both gave themselves completely to their respective roles.

It was a really good story, and I think it was executed well.

Well, we cried anyway, so that means it was good, right?

Operator is now on Netflix. Check it out if you think your relationship is perfect.

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