I thought I’d write a short review with a couple of my own thoughts on Spike Jonze’s Her (hopefully) without getting too deep and off-putting.
Impressively labelled a ‘science fiction romantic comedy’, Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Yes, really). After a failed marriage and being stuck in a generally dismal existence writing other people’s love letters up until the beginning of the film, he tries out a new operating system – OS1—offering a truly personal OS experience tailor-made to the individual. Theodore’s assigned OS, female-voice ‘Samantha’ proves to be much more than he expected, and after the initial strangeness he experiences with the impressive human-ness she exhibits, they eventually bond, become friends, fall in love, and so on.
That’s a massively under-complicated version of the story whose intricacies I couldn’t even begin to convey or do justice to, but aside from the truly stellar performances (the painful soulfulness of Joaquin Phoenix, the enviably personable Amy Adams, always brilliant Rooney Mara, and the unforgettable vocal talents of Scarlett Johansson), the themes this film manages to tackle are truly impressive—covering each one of its genre-labels in equally satisfactory measures.
I get the feeling (okay, I know) it’s a film that will divide audiences into one of two camps. Firstly, those who will view it as a self-involved, self-obsessed individual’s dream scenario– a conveniently gratifying relationship with someone/thing that doesn’t significantly require anything from you in a physical sense, which is ultimately under your control and essentially there to do your bidding (at first, anyway…*spoilers omitted*). And this point of view is, believe me, totally understandable. But on the other hand, there’s so much to see beyond this, and the way the story eventually unfolds will prove this to be a fairly superficial opinion of a film that tries to communicate so much more. There is another reading: one that implores you to see the infinite nature of the relationship dynamic from the point of view of a) a guy who’s had it and lost it, and b) a ‘woman’ who is learning everything as she goes, from scratch. Though technically the embodiment of ‘artificial intelligence’, Samantha is an organic entity in this sense – new and unaffected – and an entity through whose explorations and education on emotions (and what they actually consist of) we can learn a lot about how we all respond to situations and people’s words. Her learning process (if we choose to see it that way) allows us insight into the things we might have missed or ignored because of our own preoccupations; to see things more clearly from the point of view of someone feeling them for the first time without being encumbered by memories (personal or inherited from other sources) of heartbreak and pain, inferiority and insecurity. And that is one of the many beautiful things about Her— it reinforces that our pasts are ‘just a story we tell ourselves’.
The sheer brilliance of this film though is how beautiful and idyllic it all seems, even though you know you probably should be afraid or at least uncomfortable. While I kind of felt as if I shouldn’t be condoning what I was seeing, I felt more emotionally battered and also strangely fulfilled by Her than most other films I’ve experienced in my lifetime. Even though you’re aware that things which shouldn’t be normal (like, you know, a guy essentially dating his computer and taking his phone on a date to the fairground) are being normalised, they do actually still seem normal, even familiar.
It’s normal in the sense that the human characters get equal enjoyment from human company as they do from AI interaction, even in a group setting, and at only one point and from one character (the wounded ex-wife) do we see any hint of a sentiment akin to “Your girlfriend is an AI? Erm, well that’s a bit weird isn’t it?”. The lack of stigma around these issues of interaction is progressive, but I’m not sure –given the state of our current digital age—whether they’re realistic or not. Which, along with how truly familiar it is to see a city full of people wandering around preoccupied with their own little bubble of non-physical human communication, is fairly unsettling in itself.
And I’ll admit- I kinda fell for Theodore and Samantha’s ‘relationship’ as if it was nothing out of the ordinary—and for that I think Her should go down as one of the great romantic films of our age. It might be down to the power of Scarlett Johansson’s voice (and without it this film would not have been the same, in my opinion), but while I wouldn’t call what I felt jealousy or desire for that kind of relationship (which, let’s be honest, was very much like one of the all too common these days long-distance relationships people commit to), I found myself actively wondering what it would be like—trying to understand something that should have been a truly terrifying sign of the impending doom of mankind and our increasing inability to communicate with one another. Shouldn’t it?
But they are communicating, and they’re both learning to communicate, and in that sense it’s not just about a guy falling in love with an AI. It’s easy to feel like it is just a comment on where we’re headed, a film set in a vaguely clean-looking sci-fi setting with lots of cool technology in a world that has become over-dependent on it, and if that’s how you want to read it then you inevitably will. But you should go and watch it anyway: whether you’re expecting to have your lack of faith in humanity confirmed or to be reduced to tears at its beauty, you can’t help but win, really.