In ‘Her,’ writer and director Spike Jonze takes our growing reliance on technology to an uncomfortable extreme: Could we ever rely on technology not just to assist us, but to complete us through love?
In 2013, we live in an early age of augmentation. We carry around a growing number of devices designed to perform a growing number of tasks for us. They continue to learn and evolve, as do our demands upon them, and many of us are already willfully giving them zetabytes of our personal thoughts and habits, hoping they’ll help us navigate the ever-more-complex world that the last generation of devices and services is forcing us to participate in.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a world that’s getting past the awkward phase of augmentation we deal with today. The slightly-futuristic version of Los Angeles he lives in is filled with voice-controlled gadgets that all work seamlessly together. Though there are video games, desktop PCs, smartphones, and earpieces everywhere; you rarely need to touch a screen, and there isn’t a mouse or keyboard in sight. Cars, one of the largest devices we own, are also gone – replaced with super-fast subways, beautiful high-rise walkways, and mass transit. In Theodore’s world, people don’t spend their lives staring at smartphone screens like we do today. They walk and they get outside more. Everything is a little less hectic and more serene.
But tech hasn’t cured loneliness. Even in the future, Theodore is your typical lonely, heartbroken guy. He used to write for a major publication, but now he’s settled into an eight-year stint as a greeting card writer of the future. Working at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, he spends his days literally writing custom love letters for people, learning more about their love life than they do. He takes pride in his work, but lives a mostly solitary life. He goes home to play a half-holographic, Kinect-type game with very rude characters and occasionally calls phone sex lines. (Kirsten Wiig makes a funny voice cameo as “SexyKitten” who is far more into cats than you’d think.) His neighbor Amy (Amy Adams) is clearly into him, but he doesn’t see it or isn’t interested. Mostly, he mopes around thinking about his soon-to-be-ex wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), who sometimes calls because she’s worried about him, or wants him to sign the divorce papers.
In Theodore’s world, people don’t spend their lives staring at smartphone screens like we do today.
Theodore is a lot like anyone going through a dive – future, past, or present. Which is why when a random kiosk advertisement asks him to buy OS 1 (by ‘Artuit’), the first learning operating system, he doesn’t think twice. Your guess is as good as mine how he installs it (there are no CD ROM drives in the future), but he gets home and the new OS asks him just a few questions – like “how is your relationship with your mother?” – and quickly compiles, based on his slight hesitation with the mom question, his new OS. He asks her what her name is and she says “Samantha,” not because that’s the name she was programmed with – she just came up with it after thinking and looking up baby names in a fraction of a second.
You can guess how things progress from there. The two of them begin to form a relationship of sorts, and things get complicated because, well, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is just a computer program with a voice. She seems to learn and grow like one of us, and her responses seem realistic, but are they? Or is she just a really advanced program? Is their love real, or is she just saying what she thinks Theodore wants to hear?
It’s impossible to say, but it does seem more real and caring than many human-on-human connections. Is love between humans real either? We think it is, but we’re filled with biological programming and sensors, too. Thinking about these issues can make your brain, or motherboard, hurt, but the bottom line is that both Theodore and Samantha go out of their way to connect. Theodore takes her on walks to see the beach and skyscrapers (through his smartphone camera) and Samantha writes music for him and helps him become a happier person.
Expect a few Oscar nominations for Her, possibly for Johansson and Phoenix – though nominating the voice of Scarlett Johansson for Best Actress may come with its own set of challenges. However, the real credit goes to Spike Jonze, who – aside from voicing a cussing video game alien – wrote and directed Her. If you’ve seen Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, or Where the Wild Things Are, then you’re familiar with Jonze as a director, but Her marks the first time he’s credited as the sole writer of his own movie. The simplicity and beauty of Her comes as much from its eloquent dialogue (except for the line “choke me with the dead cat!”) and technological insight as it does from the directing and performances of Phoenix, Adams, and Johansson. This movie accomplishes exactly what it desires clearly and creatively, and that’s not a compliment you can lay on a film very often these days.
There are plenty of ideas to glean from Her, but one of its best insights is how beautiful our own limitations can be. As we push forward into crazier and crazier technological times, we’re no doubt going to end up playing god at some point, and creating machines (or operating systems) that do more, and think faster than our own imaginations can conceive. We may well create an OS that we can have a relationship with – it’s probably not far off, either. But at the end of the day, no matter what technology is around us, as humans, we’re going to grow up, live, get old, and die together. Technology may be good for a cheap date, but I wouldn’t marry it.
If you like slower movies with big ideas, and don’t hate a little love and subtle sci-fi, go see Her. It’s interesting vision of of future tech is worth the price of admission alone.