There’s a reason I review more spy films than science fiction films; spy films, in my opinion, tend to be better. But if there were more SF films like Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), that balance might tip in the other direction. Her is beautiful, thoughtful science fiction, a visual feast with heart that mingles a classic artificial intelligence plot with incisive commentary about the ironic disconnectedness of our wired, socially networked present.
The great Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombley; given the atmosphere of the film, could the Philip K. Dick ring to that name be more appropriate? Theodore is alone in a crowd, living in a future Southern California megalopolis, and he’s fallen on hard times in the wake of a divorce. His empty life involves a day job writing copy and nights immersed in video games or having awkward phone sex. Everything changes when he upgrades his personal operating system, and meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is an artificially intelligent, personal valet in the cloud, but she’s designed to be realistic and to evolve. Rather than interacting with a servile subroutine, Theodore finds himself increasingly engaged in a complicated, evolving relationship with his OS, which turns out to be more emotionally charged than he ever expected. His feelings are real, but his girlfriend is not – or is she?
The film does have flaws – a manipulative soundtrack overamps the melancholy at times, for example – and unrealistic reaches. (Could somebody have a stable job as a dotcom copywriter and afford that apartment? Would powerful AIs of this nature be so casually, commercially available? Will moustaches and high-waisted slacks ever be back in? I’ll chalk those up to creative flourishes in the world-building.) Her is still a great film, and thought-provoking science fiction both for its convincing, visually lush future-building, and its broader philosophical questions about identity and the nature of reality. Hollywood isn’t known for its nuanced, intelligent treatment of these types of ideas, but Her is refreshingly smart and clear-eyed with them. Of course, the cast is terrific. Phoenix is a remarkably immersive actor, and he’s a wonderfully accessible window onto this future. Johansson is perfect voice casting for his disembodied love, and there’s fantastic support from a talented cast that includes Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Chris Pratt, among others. It all adds up to a moving, atmospheric film about real characters with real problems in a real future. Heartfelt, touching, and imaginative stuff, and one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in years.
I’m going to cut and paste what I said about the movie back when it first came out:
When I saw the trailer, I was skeptical because the movie looked like it was wallowing in two cliches: the super-accommodating female robot, and the manic pixie dreamgirl who reawakens a depressed guy’s joy for life. I decided to give the movie a chance to prove me wrong. I think that for the first half, the movie conforms to those cliches exactly. Then when Theodore’s ex-wife tells him that he’s unable to deal with real women, I had hopes the movie was actually going to undercut the cliches. And it almost begins to do so with the sequence with the human sex surrogate; the idea of such a surrogate makes no sense at all, but at least it’s an incident where the AI is expressing wishes of its own and making the human uncomfortable instead of serving him. But that incident doesn’t lead anywhere; the two soon make up, and the story goes back to being a wish-fulfillment fantasy. The final act, with the AI growing and ultimately transcending our plane of existence, is pretty much a non sequitur; nothing we were shown earlier lays the groundwork for it. An AI that is so human that it comments on how well-written a love letter is or how attractive a woman’s feet are is not an AI that wants to rewrite itself to run on a substrate beyond matter. I imagine Spike Jonze read an article about the Singularity and thought he could make it a metaphor for how one person in a relationship can outgrow the other, but he needed to work much, much harder to make those two ideas fit together.
I think Her could have been interesting if it had focused on Amy Adams’ character, who develops a non-romantic friendship with the AI left behind by her ex-husband. A story like that would at least have avoided the human-male/robot-female dynamic that corrupts most stories about AI these days. “Helen O’Loy” casts a long shadow over SF, and we have yet to get out from under it.
Well, you make some interesting points, but you haven’t retroactively ruined the film for me! 🙂 I still think it’s a strong film. The ultimate realism of the AI was not a sticking point for me — a certain amount of disbelief suspension is needed for that anyway. To me it still succeeds as thought-provoking SF, in a present-critiquing, allegorical sense. And I’d probably be more worried about the manic pixie wish fulfillment angle if it didn’t feel like the movie was trying to tap into something more universally human…granted, your point about “Helen O’Loy” is well taken.