Every now and then we’re given a film both timely and timeless — a difficult feat in the fast-paced world of movies. Her achieves that rare film status. It’s one you need to see again and again. It’s weird and accessible, pretty and deep, hipster and haunting.
Film is a powerful tool for exploring complicated ideas, but Spike Jonze tackles a big one here. It’s our latest cultural hotbed topic: the precarious direction technology and social media are taking and the intimate place these things hold in our personal lives.
In a slight-future Santa Monica, everyone walks around talking to their earpieces. Socially reclusive good guys like Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) get paid to write other people’s letters — from parent to son, husband to wife, lover to lover. These letters demand intense empathy from a guy who goes home alone and plays video games every night. Twombly is the middle man in the tech-filled gap between humans of the future.
You might immediately think: how chic, another film with a cautionary tale against tech. Another Brave New World or I, Robot.
But Her, smartly led by nuance, resists making a statement for or against Facebook and gadgets. It suggests there is wiggle room in this debate and opens up to a possibility in which everything isn’t ruined by the Internet. People still hang out after work. Coworkers still go out for drinks. People still go on picnics (?!) in the future.
Theodore purchases the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, which has the alarming sentience to name itself (herself?) “Samantha” and contemplate the limitations of her own computery existence.
Samantha is just a disembodied voice, but we really feel her. As a sort of social experiment, the film shows how easily we audiences connect to a voice — how little semblance of humanity something needs to feel human.
But can we fall in love with one? Theodore does. And that’s when the movie becomes more.
It’s a love story between a human and robot, and rather than comment on this weirdness, it says: Why debate or deny this feeling? If it feels real, let it be real. Who wants to debate this? Who cares? The film almost seems to elegantly say: We are offered so few chances to feel anything in our cities of lights and cement. Why say a robo love story isn’t real?
For the sake of debate, it’s worth noting that our brains are also really complex, organic computers. Just like electronic programming and circuitry, most of what we do is inherited genetic code (call it “data”), subliminally impulsive response to stimuli. Where do we discover what we like and what we want? We learn some, the rest is programmed in.
Samantha, a program that operates and calculates at the lightning speed of ones and zeroes, also feels hurt and gets scared — and learns. She is human without a body, which asks the question: Is a body and birth the things that make us people?
This is an important talk to have, and one we’re going to begin to engage in if things keep going as they are, but Her refrains from giving a dense dissertation on what is and isn’t love or software. It simply tells a story with gorgeous cinematography, killer music (by my old favorite band and Spike Jonze’s musical muse, Arcade Fire) and a consistently pink, rosy color scheme.
As Theodore and Samantha’s relationship evolves onscreen, Theodore encounters a host of problems. How will they have sex? What will his friends think? What will his ice-blooded ex (Rooney Mara) think? And most importantly, where can this relationship lead?
Other directors have tried to make movies that explore the problems of robotics — the overdone Terminator franchise come to mind — but Spike Jonze has made the most successful, because it’s not a movie about computers and robots. It’s a movie about us.