I spend my time isolated from other human beings. I live in a condo but don’t know any of my neighbors. I live in a neighborhood but don’t have any friends within walking distance. I have a job but, for the most part only interact with disembodied voices on conference calls. I’m tethered to the rest of humanity, not through a community, but through e-mails, phone calls, form letters, and schedules. Technology has allowed me to be part of the colossal world economy without interacting directly with anyone in it.

As I sit in front of my computer monitor, interacting with the world through all manner of technological contrivance, I’m left wondering whether I’m missing something important in life. After all, it hasn’t always been like this. Before the modern era most of humanity was clustered in small communities. For better or worse, people were intimately acquainted with each other’s affairs; they had to be. In a town of a few hundred, how could a shopkeeper not know all of her customers? How could one not know his neighbors? Isolation was not an option.

Local Hero serves as a critique of this style of highly atomized modern living. The film opens with a portrayal of a success, as embodied in MacIntyre, a Texan oil executive. From practically the first moment we meet him, the film accentuates his isolation from everyone else. In one particularly telling scene, we see MacIntyre making a telephone call to a coworker who, it turns out, is only steps away on the other side of a glass wall. In another early scene, he gripes to his co-worker about having to fly to Scotland to buy the entire town of Ferness rather than doing it all by phone. Everything about MacIntyre’s life is impersonal. These scenes might initially appear as a gentle poking fun at corporate culture, but we come to see that this behavior has real costs. On the night before his departure, we watch MacIntyre in his fancy high-rise apartment calling up several of his former girlfriends to chat, to no avail. This lifestyle has made him a lonely man.

It’s in MacIntyre’s boss, Mr. Happer, that we see the apotheosis of modern living. Mr. Happer is the CEO of a multinational oil company; he’s reached the pinnacle of modern society. Despite, or perhaps due to, his position, he’s portrayed as unhappy, isolated, and lonely. For most of the film, he’s shown within a palatial office-apartment atop his office building where he appears to both work and live. While we see him interacting with both MacIntyre and his exploitative therapist, the film makes it clear that he spends much of his time alone, contemplating the stars. He has a persistent and melancholy thousand-yard stare which he only snaps out of when engrossed in astrology. In the world of Local Hero, Happer’s life is the end-state of a modern, technological life. He’s left with tremendous material wealth accompanied by loneliness and existential ennui. Rather than seeking community, Happer grapples with his unhappy state by hiring crackpot psychologists and obsessing over astrology.

These modern scenes are contrasted with life in the hamlet of Ferness. The town itself is tiny, poor, and backward. MacIntyre’s only link to the outside world is a single phone booth into which he must continuously feed coins to keep in touch with his boss in Texas. Occasionally a visitor like Viktor, the Soviet fisherman, drops in and the whole town throws a party to celebrate. At first blush, Ferness doesn’t seem like an attractive place for a cosmopolitan man like MacIntyre. And yet, by the end of the film, in a drunken stupor, he tells the local accountant Gordon Urquhart, that he wants to trade places with him. “I’ll make a good Gordon, Gordon,” he says over his glass of 42-year-old scotch.

Alongside the portrayals of the backwardness of life in Ferness, we’re repeatedly exposed to scenes of community. People are constantly huddled together into various spaced both for leisure and business. Throughout the film we’re exposed to the same characters partaking in civic life, whether it be through trading rumors over drinks or discussing town matters in the church or throwing town parties at the central hall. In fact, it’s the party, which takes place as MacIntyre’s mission nears its conclusion, that really gets our protagonist thinking about what he’s missing. He thinks he should be happy with a job well done, but deep down knows that he will have none of this community when he gets back to Texas. He’s tangentially felt the deep roots of community in Ferness and must return soon to his isolated palace atop a skyscraper. He must return to loneliness.

Of course loneliness and isolation have existed for thousands of years, but modernity, with all of its wealth and technology, accentuates it. When we’re given the opportunity to interact only with whom we please, we tend to shrink back into ourselves. We become less like the inhabitants of Ferness and more like MacIntyre and Happer. We become people that search increasingly desperately for meaning in a world where we don’t feel we belong. While the effects of this phenomenon are yearning and ennui in Local Hero, the real world impact may be much darker. Read many of the reports on the rash of terrorism and mass murder we’ve seen over the past few months and you’ll see repeatedly that the perpetrators felt isolated by their societies. Even before this, Hannah Arendt, the famed Jewish-American philosopher pinpointed isolation as a cornerstone of totalitarian government. In her masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she said, “[Totalitarianism] bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

Today we live in an age of wealth, opportunity, and tolerance, but it feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. As I repeatedly read headlines about political rancor, unspeakable violence, and unbridled greed, I have to wonder whether we’ve thrown out too much of the old ways. We now have the choice to live without knowing our neighbors, but does that mean we should? I’m drawn more and more to the simple message of Local Hero: life is incomplete without a strong community to share it with.