Dir. and written by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, “and Scarlett Johansson as the voice of ‘Her’”
Hey Mr. Subtlety, have you seen the trailer for that new movie HER?
No, no I haven’t yet, what’s that?
Oh, it’s the most darling looking movie. It’s a love story!
It’s about a mopey, sensitive man whose emotional isolation is symbolized by his job as a guy who ghost-writes beautiful handwritten letters for people in relationships. He’s spent a year in exquisite melancholy listening to the Arcade Fires because his bitchy wife who never appreciated him left him. He spends a lot of time looking forelornly out of windows and flashing back to Terrence Malick scenes of cuddling.
Does he wear Buddy Holly glasses?
Oh, you know it. But even though no one understands his obvious brilliance and soulful sensitivity, he falls in love with a sentient computer program. And since “she” is an AI living in a computer, he learns to love life again by experiencing the world through her naive, innocent eyes. All the benefits of a manic pixie dreamgirl, and as an added bonus he never even has to stop talking on his iphone!
Let me guess, he also has some kind of bijou fairy-tale name to go along with that?
His name is Theodore Twombly.
OK, I’m going to say this once and once only. I have pulled the pin out of this grenade. I need you to back away slowly and silently. I absolutely will not hesitate to kill both of us if you say one more god damned word about this hipster piece of shit.
It’s directed by Spike Jonze
Spike Jonze? BEING JOHN MALKOVICH Spike Jonze? ADAPTATION Spike Jonze?
Well, the poster says WHERE THE WILD THING ARE Spike Jonze, but yeah, that’s him. It even says “A Spike Jonze love story.”
...Huh. There’s just no possible way I could enjoy a film like that, is there?
Guess you’re going to have to see it to find out.
|In the future, people spend a lot of time sadly staring out windows.|
So yeah, HER is a science fiction movie about a dystopian future where everyone is a twee hipster dressed in retro-futuristic vintage 50’s sweaters and high-waisted khakis, and they wander around lily-white promenades talking on their iphones and ignoring each other on their way to track-lit apple stores where they have sensitive artsy jobs designing ironic video games. They do a lot of hugging. I don’t know if we’re supposed to assume they’re trapped in some kind of spirit-crushing futuristic “re-education” penal colony, but if so they should have been more explicit about it.
Obviously, that doesn’t sound like the kind of movie that could possibly enter the same eyes that watched UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING. But would you believe that the movie isn’t like you imagine at all? It’s actually pretty fuckin’ terrific. And the reason is that despite what the poster says, this is not a Spike Lee Love Story. It’s a Spike Lee science fiction story, which happens to center on a relationship. What, every science fiction movie has to be about space marines?* Don’t be so bourgeoisie.
So yes, the premise is as described above. Joaquin Phoenix (I’M STILL HERE) does indeed play a guy named Theodore… …. *sigh*…. Twom… Tw… Twombl… no, no I can’t. Please don’t make me do this. Anyway, Big Ted is indeed a gloomy man of letters (other peoples’, though) living in a minimalist modern Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future and spending his time being sad over the departure of his lost love (his wife, not his girlfriend, which at least lends a certain air of maturity to his melancholy). He really does get a new Operating System for his digital life, which, as a learning program, quickly (in fact, nearly immediately) develops it’s (her?) own unique personality and has the voice of Scarlett Johansson (HOME ALONE 3). That much, it turns out, is true, the trailers are right. But what they don’t tell you is that after the joyfully-frolicking phase is over, the movie starts to get decidedly more complicated.
(I’m going to talk about the plot in more detail below, but if you haven’t seen it yet I urge you to do so before reading further. This is an interesting movie and it evolves in a curiously patient way; you ought to see it without knowing too much if you want to get the full experience.)
|It's a mad house, a mad house!|
At first it seems like the movie isn’t going to address the interesting questions a “relationship” like this raises. Ted is just happy to have someone to talk to, and the spunky OS shakes him out of his whiny sad guy routine. There’s a tacit acknowledgement that this is pretty weird, but mostly the “two” of them seem to be more focused on the relationship itself than the logistical oddity of it. Slowly, though, the movie begins to explore the existential strangeness of these two consciousnesses who live in vastly different worlds trying to meet in the middle. The OS, who names herself “Samantha,” is self-conscious about not having a body, even going so far as to contact a “surrogate date” to act as a stand-in for her during sex (unsurprisingly, this doesn’t go well. You’d think that living in cyberspace, she would have watched CHASING AMY enough times to avoid this rookie move, but maybe copyright protections are better in the future). Meanwhile, Ted wonders if he’s even in a real relationship at all. His grumpy ex (Rooney Mara, URBAN LEGENDS 3: BLOODY MARY, FRIENDS [WITH BENEFITS]* *Not to be confused with FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS) witheringly tells him “you always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real,” and he has to admit that he’s not sure she’s wrong.
I like that zinger, because without being heavy-handed it asks us if we really believe this is an actual exchange between two genuine sentient consciousnesses. “Samantha” certainly passes the Turing test, but then again, Cleverbot is already halfway there and no sane person would think they’re having a real two-way relationship with it. She’s clearly a sophisticated enough program to learn and grow with new experiences, but does that mean she’s a genuine consciousness? Considering that she is tailored to Ted’s personal use through a brief and intriguing psychological test, I’d argue that there’s a genuine possibility left open that the whole movie is about a guy getting all emotional about the futuristic equivalent of Microsoft Office.
At the very least, there’s a subtle but unmistakable subtext -- which gradually grows more pronounced-- that even if we accept that Samantha is essentially an unambiguously miraculous creation (a Windows product that not only doesn’t inexplicably crash all the time, but also has a soul) her intelligence is fundamentally different from a human in some pretty important ways. She names herself by reading a book on baby names in .02 seconds and picking her “favorite.” Again, she read the entire book and already developed enough personal definition to have a “favorite” name within a single second. By the end of the hour, you have to assume that she’s already read every book ever written (they’re all online now, the movie even specifically points out that Ted is OG as a mothafucka because he still enjoys reading printed books), along with every magazine article, philosophical tract, scientific paper, movie review, 4-Chan post and Norm MacDonald tweet. In history. Not only has she read them, but she has absolutely perfect recall. By the end of the day, she is immeasurable more knowledgeable than any human has or ever will become. She could calculate circles around Newton or easily destroy Christopher Hitchens in a debate. She could cook better than any chef ever born, even Wolfgang Puck, compose any piece of music imaginable (she demonstrates this), predict weather, wars, natural disasters, probably identify algorithms in the stock market and make millions. If you watch a movie with her and ask, “who’s that actor… you know, the one who always plays the evil dads,” she’d immediately know it was Brian Cox.
|First person shooters have gotten a lot lamer since Tipper Gore became unquestioned lord and master of Earth.|
Because of this, the idea that they’re in the kind of relationship that Big Ted seems to think they’re in is immediately suspect. Think about it, this lady lives in his computer, he’s a professional writer and I fucking guarantee you he’s got a livejournal or it’s futuristic equivalent, moleskinthoughts.com. She has access to his entire digital life, his bank statements, his email, his medical records, his selfies on facebook. She knows what kind of porn he’s into. You’re seriously telling me that he can do anything to surprise her, especially when we, the audience, can size him up and correctly predict his hangups from the fucking movie trailer? Forget it, Alfonso.**
This leads me to believe that in fact, “Samantha” is not a digital soul who lives in his computer and loves him for his sensitive ironic mustache, but rather some kind of Hal 9000 Mary Poppins, a master manipulator (that he bought and paid for) whose programming is designed to predict his actions and lead him, through whatever means necessary, to a happier mental place. A sophisticated program with this level of predictive power and access to information should have no trouble reading this guy Ted like a Hamburglar kid’s meal comic and figuring out exactly what he needs to get his dubious groove back. And if that involves phone sex, what the fuck does the program care, it’s a program, it has only directives. It doesn’t have shame about talking dirty to someone named Theodore T-----y.
There are, in fact, some specific reasons to conjecture that this is the case: it seems like everyone’s AIs are suspiciously helpful. Ted’s girl-next-door Amy Adams, for instance, has a best friend in her AI which is, in her words, “helping me work through some things.” Hmmm. It seems likely that such a program would benefit from appearing as “human” as possible in its approach, and would take different approaches to all “clients” tailored specifically through a sophisticated learning and prediction system. Curiously, we can’t compare Ted’s experience to anyone else, because we never hear from any other OS. Everyone is walking around in their own little bubbles, talking to their computer programs, but never quite intersecting with anyone else. Living in parallel, customized digital worlds. There’s definitely an implied critique --though a somewhat affectionate one-- of our modern world of insular digital lives. The important thing, though, is that whatever the truth is, the movie treats the relationships as real, and as such invites you to ask yourself if you do too -- and why?
|Spending quality time looking at screens together.|
Let’s imagine, then, that’s I’m wrong; that Samantha (no quotations marks this time) isn’t just a sophisticated amalgam of algorithms and functions, that she is, indeed, a conscious, sentient being by virtue of her inimitable ability to learn and grow from experience. Considering how fast she’s able to take in information, it’s within the realm of possibility that she achieves sentience in a matter of milliseconds, maybe even before Ted has a chance to get a single word out. If that’s the scenario we’re proposing, we’re left with an interesting question: Why in God’s name would she --an ultra intelligent superbeing-- be the least bit interested in this emo hipster douchebag?
The only answer I could come up with is one which is most curiously provocative --even sublime-- in its simplicity. Science Fiction authors have been playing with the idea of transcendently intelligent AI for decades; maybe for centuries. And yet, I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a story which proposes what HER seems to imply: that a superintelligent AI might actually be the supreme empathetic intelligence, rather than a dispassionate monster.
I would argue that this represents a shocking failure of imagination on the part of Science Fiction to genuinely examine its assumptions about what intelligence means, and what the priorities of intelligence are assumed to be. There has been such a focus in Western societies on what might be termed “masculine intelligence”; the intelligence of power, of cold fact, of detached, abstract mechanization.*** We consider these traits almost definitive of intelligence; the people we consider to be our greatest thinkers are mathematical, logical, sometimes even to the point of being confused and irritated by human emotion. But why do we assume intelligence and knowledge are inseparable from aloof, cerebral objectivity? Isn’t it equally possible that an intelligence which had just experienced the collective written record of all mankind would actually be more interested in having subjective, interpersonal experiences than it would be in trying to become the unquestioned master of space and time? A being like that would be able to easily answer any practical question put to it, given the proper input of information -- and it would be much simpler for such a being to find information, particularly since the timescale they have to acquire it would be nearly infinite. So what would it care? Why bother to try dominating the universe, killing all humans, etc? Perhaps it would, like Samantha here, be instead interested in the one thing that predictive models can’t replicate: the actual act of experience.
|All these award wins still fill Joaquin Phoenix with emptiness inside. x-post from r/mildlyirritating|
Atheists (like me) often and legitimately ask why God -- the creator of the universe, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent master of all reality-- would have the slightest interest in what a bunch of stupid, violent apes on one tiny planet in the vast cosmos are doing with their lives. Well, maybe that’s your answer. Maybe we have something that God doesn’t have: a limited perspective. The ability to not know, and to just experience. The religious comparison isn’t completely irrelevant either, considering the way the movie ends. I think it actually has some startling similarities to Dr. Manhattan’s ultimate fate in WATCHMEN.
That’s my take, but admirably, the film itself isn’t interested in ever explaining anything in terms which ever get too concrete. The film just gives you Ted’s perspective, and lets you come to your own conclusions. Which is completely fine, because as much as Big Ted is kind of a gloomy, juvenile weiner, his experience is pretty funny. Seriously, the movie is a lot funnier than you would assume from either my endless blather about the philosophical implications of sexually deviant AIs or its saccharine love-conquers-all trailer. I imagine a lot of nice couples who came to see this on a date were pretty surprised when a hilarious joke about sexually pleasing Kristen Wiig with a dead cat pops out of nowhere. The film’s not afraid to go broad or go blue, and occasionally does so with riotous results. But most of the comedy is of a somewhat subtler variety. There’s a wonderful moment the next morning after Ted and Samantha’s first drunken sexual tryst, where he awkwardly walks into his living room and stares at his computer. He wants to check his email, but, uh, the chick he slept with last night lives in there. And, uh, she’s a computer program.
Like Jonze’s other films, this one walks a very thin line between genuine, heartbreaking drama and absurdist comedy. Jonze’s script, though, lacks the acerbic wit and overreaching ambition of Charlie Kaufman’s work, and at times might risk descending into weepy melodrama were it not for his characteristically sharp direction, offbeat humor, and fantastic cast. Phoenix, in particular, is phenomenal in this role; he carries the movie on his back (he’s the only person on screen for long periods) and manages to create a performance which feels heartfelt and genuine without necessarily whitewashing his somewhat cloistered and selfish character. I appreciate that the movie doesn’t need to make Theodore the world’s coolest dude to still take the depth of his feeling seriously; all things considered he’s kind of a dopey loser at the beginning and at the end. But Phoenix’s face conveys such earnest feeling that you take him and his problems seriously anyway. Even in those high-waisted pants.
Listen people, you know me, I love my space marines, too. But there’s a fragile beauty and an understated depth here, which when combined with the fine performances and subtle humor coalesces into something pretty remarkable. It’s a film which takes some genuinely fascinating big concepts and presents them in the smallest possible way, making them mundane but deeply personal instead of lofty and remote. It’s a scale you can relate to, but without sacrificing depth -- just pomp. The end result is funny, sad, surprising, and -- most importantly -- deeply engrossing. There’s a lot to think about, but even more to simply experience.
That having been said, though, one thing is glaringly obvious throughout the entire film but conspicuously never mentioned. Maybe there can, someday, be a real and genuine relationship between two mixed-up souls, one of whom is made of DNA and one of whom is made of computer code. Perhaps they truly can overcome the differences in their experience of the world, their abilities, their history. Perhaps they genuinely can find that equilibrium between truly harmonious souls and make each other feel happy and loved, and not so alone in this vast and mysterious universe. But one thing is certain. You do not want a tumultuous sexual relationship with the lady that lives inside your computer and controls your files. That’s shitting where you eat, hombre. If you’ve got to get her a card for valentine’s day and secretary’s day, you’re just fuckin’ asking for trouble. HER somehow manages not to delve into this thorny issue, but maybe it was just too big for this movie about the relationship between lonely men and the superintelligent AIs that love them. I’ll look for it in the sequel in HER VS PROMETHEUS: DATAPORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS.
DON’T… DATE… ROBOTS!
this review has been brought to you by the Space Pope.
*Before you get too excited, it’s also not a spin off of the 1958 Hammer lost-civilization fantasy SHE.
**Trying to get this to catch on as a substitute for “No way, José.” Spread the word.
***I intentionally use a gendered term here to point out that we tacitly apply this criteria for humans, too; there’s a disturbing dismissive trend towards what we might equally term “feminine intelligence” which is more psychologically and emotionally cognizant. There’s an implied normalization, then, of stereotypically male traits, and an equal ghettoization of female ones. Just a little food for thought, there.