Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Her Movie Review

What direction are we headed in with ubiquitous technology that becomes smarter year after year? Our smart phones, tablets, and other devices respond more and more effectively to our persona needs. Even voice technology for communicating your wants and tasks is possible. So how far away from artificial intelligence are we? That question is less important than how we handle it once it’s here. Previously, The Matrix and AI have dealt with issues related to machines that can think, reason, and even emote, but Spike Jonze’s Her tackles the romantic relationship aspect directly.


Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore Twombly, a sad sack near-divorcee who writes emotional letters for other people, a profession that is a logical extension of greeting card writing. He knows some of his clients so well he can write almost from their heads, including small details he’s picked up during years of writing for repeat clients. After work he shuffles home, scrolling through banal emails and listening to melancholy songs in his earpiece. He has a comfortable social relationship with his dowdy neighbor, Amy (Amy Adams), and her husband. Then he encounters an advertisement for a new artificially intelligent OS. After setting it up and assigning it a female voice (that of Scarlett Johansson), he suddenly has a strange new friend. She names herself Samantha and she has a thirst for life. She has desires, needs, and makes emotional connections. Her feelings can even be hurt. Eventually she discovers even sexual pleasure. It’s easy enough to see that Samantha and Theodore will develop a romantic relationship stronger than he even had with his wife, played by Rooney Mara.

Jonze establishes the complete normalcy of the existence of artificial intelligence in this near-future Los Angeles. It is not at all strange to anyone that he’s dating his OS. Even Amy has befriended hers and has heard of several successful human-OS dating relationships. His ex-wife’s objections have more to do with knowing that this relationship could mean that he’s continuing to avoid certain needs in his life, but it’s not about the strangeness that we in the audience necessarily experience. Nearly everything you could think of as a potential roadblock to having a relationship that resembles a human to human one is dealt with in Jonze’s thoughtful and deeply enriching screenplay. What about going out as a couple with others? Multiple earpieces allow Samantha to interact with others as if she were physically present. What about physical sex? Well, that question is answered in the film’s best directed scene. Jonze, forced with the possibility that a sex scene between man and OS would very likely appear absurd on screen (an early chat room sex scene between Theodore and a stranger on the other end becomes weird and uncomfortable), chooses to fade to black during the entirety of the build to climax as Samantha experiences sexual pleasure for the first time. As you sit, staring at a blank screen, it’s easy to forget that one of the participants is disembodied. Jonze allows the viewer to experience it almost the same way Samantha does – cut off from the physical world and feeling everything in her mind.

The production design and costuming are key ingredients. The fashion doesn’t look much different from an amalgam of several modest styles of the last few decades. There’s nothing flashy, garish, or outrageous. Button down shirt and high-waisted trousers are the male fashion. The sets from the offices and apartments to the public transport suggest a streamlined environment where everything is digitized. There’s not a lot of clutter because who needs cumbersome desks and drawers full of paper? But nothing looks loudly futuristic. This keeps everything grounded in a reality we can understand and relate to.

Though Theodore’s relationship is with a non-human entity, Jonze has more to teach us about our very human nature and need to connect and to broaden ourselves than most other romantic dramas. The philosophical underpinnings are merely suggested, but never discussed. A thoughtful mind will bring a great deal more to this movie than it can explicitly provide on its own. It forces us to question exactly what we seek in our relationships, and whether or not the physical presence is necessary. Intimacy can be, and probably often is, a deep connection of two minds.

If there’s one thing that keeps me from extolling as loudly as possible the virtues of Her, it’s that it failed to make the kind of deep emotional connection I look for in whatever I ultimately consider a perfect movie. That’s not to say it’s not emotional or that it didn’t strike me at all, but I never felt a moment of true elevation. It didn’t push me to a real emotional plane. Maybe it’s a failing on my part of not finding it in me to empathize with a disembodied voice, but nevertheless, I can’t ignore my emotional reaction.

There is a terrifying conclusion perhaps to be drawn from the ultimate result of Samantha’s and Theodore’s relationship. It begins to illustrate not only the rather minor danger of being with someone whose thirst and capacity for understanding and emotional connection is far greater than your own, but also what it might mean to have a computerized mind that wants and wants to want more. I wouldn’t call Her a cautionary tale exactly, although you can certainly take that with you from this film. It’s more fundamental than that. Her shows us what it is to be human and reminds us in the end of the beauty and imagination and innovation that might lead us to one day create a machine that mimics humanity in all recognizable aspects. Is Samantha a true consciousness? That’s a subject for endless debate and I’m not sure Jonze is out to settle the point. He’s just done a truly wonderful and beautiful job in raising it.

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