Hard science fiction intersects with legitimate romance under the careful direction and only slightly less careful script of one Spike Jonze, and the result is one of 2013's best.
Written and directed by Spike Jonze
Spoiler alert: high
Hard science fiction is surely one of the rarest subgenres of them all—I can name, really, only about two dozen genuinely hard SF films—and they all have a reputation for being cold. The quintessential example is 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that is foremost about composition, color, physical verisimilitude, composition, technological futurism, color, evolutionary teleology, composition, and, most relevantly for our purposes here, color, as well as the advent of artificial intelligence. Indeed, the only character 2001 shows much interest in at all is its mad computer. It's great, of course; 2001 is, until the next time I change my mind, the second best movie ever made before I was born.
It's also about the only movie there is like itself; the only other SF movies that occur to me offhand which resemble it in its infamously cool detachment are the works of celebrated cinematic autist Shane Carruth, the director of the inscrutably amazing Primer and this year's amazingly inscrutable Upstream Color. 2001 still dominates discussion of hard SF in film because it is by far the best known and most watched of its breed—in truth you could make a sound argument that it's not hard SF in the first place—but the reputation it has given the whole subgenre is, frankly, bullshit.
Probably more often that it hasn't, hard sci-fi has foregrounded individual humanity; indeed, hard SF, in film anyway, has been as a rule more emotionally driven than its less scientifically faithful cousin. Gattaca, Vanilla Sky, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Moon and most recently Gravity represent hard SF with heart to spare. Her continues their tradition and in terms of immediately relatable vicarious feeling, outdoes them—have you met your younger, angrier clone lately? No? But have you fallen in love? Have you ever thought that you never could again?
Her is an example of hard SF so humane that, sometimes, it hurts; and at others, so uplifting that for full minutes at a time while watching it I had a big, stupid smile on my face.
In brief, Her is the story an emotionally damaged man falling in love with an artificial intelligence, and that artificial intelligence falling right back into love with him, and how that works like a human relationship, and how it doesn't. Fucking our computers was not a thing when 2001 came out, but it's (barely figuratively) commonplace in 2013—more commonplace than it is each other, at any rate—so when our man arbitrarily genders his recently-purchased OS-1 during its set-up, gives it a female voice and starts talking to it, naturally the scenario involves far more possibilities for affection and heartache than when HAL 9000 came online back in 1997.
Obviously, Her can be read as any number of Metaphors for Our Times, most saliently as an allegory for online relationships, which have supplemented, and in some cases, all but replaced physical interaction for a large and growing number of people in our world.
You know. Other people.
Her concedes to the necessities of the medium that in the Future, all this will be done a whole lot more with voice recognition software and VOIP, rather than typing out text messages and forum posts and sad movie blogs on keyboards, which is fine because reading is for nerds (wholly unlike movies about the rise of the machines—keep reading, nerd).
A little unnervingly, the streets of 20XX Los Angeles may be full of people, but so many of them are by themselves, talking to themselves. Less immersively—though we only see it for a few seconds, since this is a movie—voice recognition software has also created one of the most obnoxious office environments I can possibly imagine.
Theodore Twombly is our fellow's name, and he is a mustachioed, bespectacled semi-loser in the game of love—I say semi-loser, because while he is dragging his feet on finalizing his divorce solely because he fears giving up the last empty formality of the love he has long since lost, he also appears to be attractive enough to get Olivia Wilde to practically beg him for sex, in a pretty spectacular cameo that I'd argue features the best single feat of acting in the film, on which I'll have a brief note later.
He works at the cacophonous offices of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a service which offers all those poor souls too busy or too stupid the chance to express their feelings, which they may or may not actually feel, to their loved ones. They do this through the simple expedient of having someone else compose them wholesale. Despite a profound fear of others' emotions, Theo is highly successful in explaining them as an intermediary, so long as his own don't have to be engaged. (Do you get it? DO YOU?)
Thematic underscoring aside, Theo's job is—rather thrillingly really—one of the lamest and most unnecessary vocations I have ever seen, and I have watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I have watched The Jetsons, and you don't even want to hear about what I do. But even as lame as it is, the idea has a subtle brilliance. This is a profession that employs the very last vestige of human usefulness in the coming jobless economy: our competitive advantage in writing words that can make other humans feel things. That this, of all occupations, enables him to live in what we would consider upper middle class splendor speaks enormous volumes about the world of Her.
Because even George Jetson made stuff; in some obscure fashion he was that necessary mediator between the head and the mechanical hands of Spacely Sprockets. Theo's job is so far on the margins of the tertiary economy that I don't know if it still counts; but stability, in terms of raw lucre, is never at issue in this film about tomorrow.
I've seen Her described as "near-future," but I guess that depends on your definition of "near," because I can't believe it isn't some decades from now: aside from the fact that it will take at least forty years for pants to ever get that high again, or for humans to forget the simple genius of our contemporary belt technology, the warming glow of economic prosperity which is so clearly visible in every frame of this film seems impossible without much intervening in the meantime. Theo, you implicitly understand, is in the midst of a mostly implied but logically quite necessary automation revolution such as would terrify even the likes of a Ray Kurzweil (and send Paul Krugman rightfully raving about robots again). Yet the fact that no one cares suggests that far more than just our technology has advanced. Unemployment isn't mentioned once, nor is underemployment, nor debt, and how those factors affect relationships is left enitrely unaddressed, one reckons because it does not, on this alien planet, need to be.
So in important ways, Her isn't a very good Metaphor For Our Times at all; silently yet compellingly utopian, like a stealthier version of Things To Come, it is a Replacement Model For Our Times. Whatever has happened between then and now, the most important innovation in the untold history of Her is that an essential and altogether novel goodness in humanity has arisen, presumably in the wake of some kind of victorious if vague class realignment, and it seems from the continuing existence of Her's version of Everytown (that is, LA with Shanghai's skyline) one not so likely to have involved the curative properties of airpower as in H.G. Wells' futurist fever dream. Heck, even Gene Roddenberry supposed we needed a nuclear war to shake things up.
For me this was one of the most unexpected, disarming, and delighting things I had the pleasure of seeing this year at the theater: a vision of the future where contentment seems possible without resort to violence or apocalypse. It's no simple oversight, but deliberately conceived: genuine decency and profound kindness permeate every aspect of the film, from the script to the performances to K.K. Barrett's pastel production design to Hoyt Van Hoytema's mellow cinematography.
I mean, just look at it! This movie looks like sherbert!
Indeed, the most indecent thing you'll hear in this movie is the voice of Kristen Wiig, here in a voice cameo that brings ten thousand times more energy than she was permitted to have in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. She's shouting obscenities while blowing her girl load to her fantasies of a disgustingly obscure fetish during a Skype dirty talk session with our Theodore; all of which is, after all, just a joke (and a funny one) about how we're getting more lost in unduly specific forms of sensuality, the more we disconnect physically from each other here in the world. Hey, the Net, as they say, is vast.
And unkindness, as it could only be in a utopia, is entirely personal.
Like K.K. Barrett said, "The idea was that everything is so comfortable, but it’s still possible to feel estranged."
In the wake of his divorce, Theo can only be described as "fragile" in the sense that the innumerable pieces of a shattered glass are still all individually fragile and easy to crush underfoot. Perhaps naturally then—and no doubt instinctively, for this sensitive and introverted soul—Theo has retreated into relative solitude. But that solitude comes to an end when he purchases a new operating system for his computer, the first commercially available artificially intelligent program.
Because he craves companionship of the fairer sex—and perhaps because he relates more easily to women in general—and because he is given the option, he selects a feminine voice with which to interface with his OS. It speaks in the voice of Scarlett Johansson—a name I've been routinely misspelling for most of her career, almost as often as the once and future Leaf Phoenix'—and she is thankfully using her real voice, and not, for example, the admittedly effective but aurally brutal affectation she deployed in Don Jon. Thus It becomes the titular Her (grammar, grammar), and gives herself the name Samantha.
Whatever difficulties the logistics of the film's premise must have posed to the production, and however they overcame them, Phoenix talking to himself on set and Johannsen talking to herself in a studio booth never once feels like two separate monologues, but always an integral dialogue between two personalities in the same place and time. The result is a pair of the year's best, and no doubt most challenging, performances. Comparisons to Moon in more than its hard SF bona fides are apt; that film may have been even more logistically problematic, given that it involved Sam Rockwell pretending to be an astronaut pretending to talk to Kevin Spacey pretending to be a robot who was pretending to talk to Sam Rockwell again—in essence, three entirely disconnected vocal performances, two by the same guy playing two significantly different versions of the same character—and thus their work may deserve more adoration as pure craft; but credit where its due, Rockwell never had to have a romantic scene with Spacey. Or himself.
Maybe she's just off camera for all I know. P.S.: Ukelele playing does not feature prominently in this film. I know you were wondering.
It's in the performances, in these dialogues, that Her comes most alive, and the honesty with which Theo can treat his invisible friend is rejuvenating for him, and, because she's never met a person before, endlessly fascinating for her. The advent of Samantha is the beginning of Theo's return to the world. She incites him to try to be happy, affectionately cajoling him back into his established but fallow relationships, and even into a blind date, portrayed by Olivia Wilde.
"I AM NOT STILL EMOTIONALLY CRIPPLED BY MY DIVORCE I MEAN HELLO YOU LOOK GREAT. ASIAN FUSION CUISINE HUH COOL."
As alluded, this brief appearance, amounting to a cameo, involves so much more than the size of the role would ordinarily demand. And this is one of the great things about Her: it is such a deeply humanized story that Wilde isn't here just to show her face, flaunt her gams and waste her acting. As mere name casting, it already works well enough; that Wilde is ultra-hot is practically a plot point, hammering home Theo's utter inability to function. Their date progresses from meet-cute to heavy flirtation through straight-up proposition and finally to abject humiliation on both sides, for Theo, in his brokenness, cannot even hold his shit together long enough to accept the proffer of a solid fucking from Olivia Wilde, in exchange for nothing more than a promise to see her again. Pay attention to her face as she processes this, cycling through disbelief, hurt, disbelief, embarrassment, and disbelief, before finally settling instinctive, vicious anger; it's maybe not much, but it is nothing short of brilliant.
(And, of course, it'd be criminal to forget Amy Adams as Theo's friend, conveniently also named Amy. Physically, it's the complete opposite of her role in American Hustle. This is the better performance, if the least difficult of the two; who else exemplifies this world better than Adams, with her stripped down appearance—still A+ gorgeous, mind—but practically devoid of makeup, bundled up snugly, smiling and inviting and infinitely friendly, yet somewhat distant and brittle?)
Theodore, thoroughly crashed and burned, returns home to Samantha, and in the midst of his confessions of fear and selfishness and weakness, something happens, and a curious new stage is reached in the relationship between man and machine. And then just about everything you think could happen in this movie does happen, short of Kelly LeBrock conjuring herself out of a Memotech MTX512.
So, yeah, if you expected Samantha to get a Scarlett Johansson-shaped chassis at some point then—spoiler!—that fails to occur; the film takes a far more interesting turn, because some things that you come in thinking theoretically could happen, but which you will have been lulled, under the security blanket warmth of the film, into believing won't happen, do indeed happen as well.
And then there's the sex surrogate thing, which you probably won't see coming at all unless you read about it, as I did, but let's return to that later.
Whenever I can, I prefer to take science fiction, no matter how fabulistic, at face value first. And Her, for all its enormously believable creativity, can at times be too cagey (i.e., I expect, under-researched). The workings of Samantha are left defiantly vague; this is probably for the best, although curiosity compels one to wonder many things: if she's operating off of Theo's hard drive or a server somewhere in Reykjavik; by what means our reborn Alan Turings solved all the many problems plaguing the development of a strong AI, and what this says, if it says anything, about the nature of consciousness generally; and, of course, are we sure the nuclear weapons are not accessible via the Internet?
There are, of course, times during Her where Samantha's conception can be said—were you inclined to be uncharitable—to be little more sophisticated than "the tiny person who lives inside Theodore's phone." But this is reversed, shatteringly, in what might be called the "third act"—although applying act structure to such a then-this-happened narrative is tricky and unnecessary, so we can say "toward the end" instead—when Samantha's nature as a disembodied tenth level intellect, with all the capabilities and proclivities that suggests, becomes abundantly clear.
If the metaphor for online relationships is current, the metaphor for how limited and small human love, even the purest human love, can be—and a love that is simultaneously quite sexual and infinitely chaste is as good a construct to deliver this metaphor as any I can think of—is universal and timeless. Unavoidably, we take nothing more than a bit of imperfect sensory input, invest it with our dearest hopes and dreams, not to mention our fantasies and fetishes, and call that "love"; in truth, we create a construct which we say we love, but that at best comprehends only the smallest fraction of the real person our feelings are based on.
But if Her has any grand point, it is that this wholly imperfect love, this best that we can do, is still wonderful and it's still worth striving toward, no matter what; and that we can always get better at feeling it, expressing it, and understanding its object, the last being the worthiest goal of all.
So let's come back to that sequence with the sex surrogate.
Human/OS relationships are not a marginalized thing in the future, and why should they be? They're pretty clearly just folks, so the notion that it's like dating a fleshlight almost never comes up, because in this progressive super-future, it would be at once dismissed as preposterous. So I'll echo everyone who's said that this is where the movie could have fucked up badly and thankfully didn't. Her never veers into a fable of fantastic racism and why it's bad, being far more concerned with its other fable on one hand and the logical consequences of its SF conceits on the other to bother with such a trite story element. Although the question of the reality of love is central to everything that transpires, the reality of Samantha is only occasionally in question, and it comes into play in any serious way exactly once; and when it does, it is beyond a reasonable doubt that it's an ill-considered expression of vitriol toward Theo, not Samantha.
However, their relationship is also not like dating a sex toy because you can't actually have sex with Samantha. All those parts sensitive to moisture certainly recommend against the idea; not to mention those fans spin really fast.
Having been apprised of the sex surrogate bit, I was braced for it, prepared to fully hate it; I could not think of anything more ludicrous than the idea of people offering sex for the sexless like they would ladle soup down at the homeless shelter. There are, after all, a great many people who don't get any to speak of now, yet no such movement exists—that is, that I am aware of in any way, but maybe Blowjobs Without Borders just has the laziest publicists in the world.
In the film, though, it works. "You mean a prostitute?" Theo asks with shock; she's not, yet because it is presented in the most plausible manner short of that, the concept requires not a great deal more credulity to believe. First, in this world, so thoroughly rendered, the idea of such intimate kindness on behalf of a stranger for its own sake is not so far-fetched as it might be today. But it is a bit more involved than that.
Yes, the notion that the young lady whom Samantha contacts represents a symbiotic subculture riding the human/OS current is a factor. However, it's not presented as a mere social fad. It is, instead, just one more attempt by people to try to connect with other people: to hold onto whoever they can, however they can. And I can believe that.
Perhaps it works, finally, because she is, after a fashion, an audience surrogate as well. When she says she wants to be a part of their relationship, she's not speaking solely for herself, and because we've seen inside it, we understand. To see this movie is like being part of Theo and Samantha's strange romance; when Spike Jonze has the young lady call it "beautiful," I didn't question if he'd earned that right, for by then I was beyond needing him to prove anything to me. And while I will not spoil so much as to say that this movie has a happy ending, or a sad ending, when it does end, I was happy and sad, at the same time; but I felt, so curiously, better.