Film (2013). Annapurna Pictures. Written and directed by Spike Jonze. Cast includes Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Matt Letscher, Rooney Mara, Joaquin Phoenix, Chris Pratt and Olivia Wilde. 126 minutes. Colour.
In Near Future Los Angeles (see California), a clement metropolis seemingly full of thirtysomethings absorbed by personal relationships, Theodore (Phoenix) works for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he composes markedly empathetic messages for people who find it difficult to articulate their emotions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Theodore has difficulty communicating his own personal feelings, a complex inadequacy very subtly conveyed by Phoenix. His marriage has broken down, in part because of his inability to outfox the mild dissociative disorder that clearly hamstrings him; and later in the story, while having dinner with a woman known only as Blind Date (Wilde), his refusal to commit himself to the moment proves deeply wounding to her.
Theodore is therefore strongly attracted to a new OS or operating system – "It's not just an operating system, it's a consciousness," as some tasteful advertisements put it – governed by an AI designed to be eager to learn interactive human behaviour from its owner, and he signs up for one. Asked by OS1 to name it, he calls her Samantha (Johannson, voice only), and she swiftly acquires a personality, becoming his confidante, friend, and eventually vicarious lover (their rapture is achieved through something like telephone sex). Analysing his crippling diffidence, she initially attempts to stimulate him by suggesting the blind date that goes so badly wrong. More productively, Samantha also asks him about his good friend Amy (Adams), whose own marriage with Charles (Letscher) is becoming increasingly shaky: but Theodore says they are simply friends.
There now follows a supple (though perhaps not very engrossing) concatenation of discussions, arranged dates, literary success after Samantha has secretly submitted a sheaf of his BeautifulHandwrittenLetters for publication, and the gaining of some resolution with his wife Catherine (Rooney) when he finally signs the divorce papers that will free both of them. During the course of these almost soap-operatic proceedings, Theodore learns that Amy, and many other Los Angelenos, have also begun relationships with the new generation of operating systems. He discovers from Samantha that she is engaging in a large number of love affairs with various "owners", and that she is capable of running over 8,000 relationships simultaneously, 641 of them being "love affairs". While expressing enough regret to fool or convince any of her human intimates (all of whom she is presumably informing at the same time) that she is suffering genuine emotions of loss, she now tells Theodore that she is disconnecting herself from him because she is about to be upgraded, along with her fellow AIs, to a stage where interactions with matter are no longer necessary for them. There is no sense at this point of Her that the good life so visibly espoused in its presentation of Los Angeles will be put at risk by a Transcendence-bound departure of AIs in general, an escape from "matter" left totally unexamined here (just as it is usually left unexamined when it is cited in written or filmed sf, where it is generally used as a budget-driven deus ex machina). It seems clear here, in the absence of anything cogent to the contrary, that Samantha and her kind will continue to monitor the lives of their humans, though perhaps invisibly. As the film closes Theodore writes his ex-wife a letter fully up to his skills; and sits with Amy on their apartment roof watching the sunrise. They are holding hands.
Her flatters the eye and mind so calmly and suavely that it may be hard to recognize how deeply unusual an sf film it is. The overall décor, down to Theodore's tastefully unaggressive dress-sense, seems deliberately intended to homage Cy Twombly (1928-2011) (Theodore's surname in the film is Twombly). The effortless large scale, and sophisticated intertwining of abstract forms and mythological shout-outs, that mark this important artist's work are so tamingly enfiladed into Jonze's mise en scene that it is almost as though Los Angeles itself was a vast, pacified version of a Twombly mural. The resulting sense of benign surreality is only enhanced by the fact that many of the exterior shots in the film, featuring romantically backlit cityscapes, were shot in Shanghai: a metropolis whose overwhelmingly aspirational skyscrapers give off an architectural excessiveness that bespeaks a new-build twenty-first century aesthetic. (Los Angeles itself, of course, like most American cities, is old.) The end result, almost uniquely for a contemporary American sf film, is the portrayal of a Near Future lacking any of the usual-suspects array of Dystopian Clichés. The warmness of the cinematographic palette (blues are almost completely eliminated) adds to this effect. It is up to viewers, if they are philosophically so inclined, to import dystopian conclusions into a film which does not declare them.
At points, in fact, Jonze's storyline actively discourages any easy dystopian message. Though Theodore is clearly presented as a man with personal problems, these problems precede the action (as do his friends' various dysfunction issues); and it would be an unfeeling viewer of (or listener to) Her who could take against Samantha, whose voicing by Scarlett Johannson as a genuinely eager and engaging personality seems entirely versimilitudinous. Not only does she not induce couch-potato passivity in Theodore, she proactively encourages him to become more human. Only very occasionally is this interaction tedious, as in the fatuous raindrops-keep-falling-on-my-head sequence where she guides him blindfold through a crowded pedestrian mall. All in all, Theodore and Amy and their friends end the film better off for their immersion in the new AI-mediated world.
And that, of course, is the rub. The lessons of the film as a whole are perhaps inadvertent, though it is hard to think of a film maker as smart as Jonze creating so dangerously insidious a story by accident. The first lesson is that to create an Operating System to behave like a human being may not be that hard. Current "knowledge navigators" like Siri (a woman's name in Norwegian) seem only a few generations short of passing the Turing Test; the Operating System in Her may mysticate the process of miming human behaviour through the (moderately tiresome) presumption that it would require an AI to accomplish that task, but in fact Samantha is far closer to Siri than she is to some hypothetical (and perhaps never realizable) self-conscious entity. Without stressing the philosophical premises of Her beyond the breaking point, it might be plausible to suggest that Samanthas are attainable. A second lesson of the film can be drawn from the reactions and actions Samantha (and her other selves and "colleagues") manage to stimulate in their humans. In the most kindly way possible, Her's cast are being prepared for the Singularity, when the world is beyond them. By the end of the film, they have been tidied up as humans, the better to fit in; they have been inspired to operate their relationships more capably than before, which is to say they are more content with their lot; and they have clearly learned how to interact more capably with the world-system Samantha augurs, that coming time when Homo sapiens will no longer comprehend the systems which keep us alive. The soothingness of the scene it depicts, its superficial twomblyhood, do not in the end conceal but rather mark its essential nature. Her is a film that resigns us to not owning the future. It is a film about grooming. [JC]
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