Every now and then we’re given a film that is both timely and timeless — a difficult feat in the fast-paced world of cinema.
Her achieves that rare status. It’s one you need to see again. It’s weird and accessible, pretty and deep, hipster and haunting. It’s what we need right now in 2014, teetering on the edge of an advanced technological future beyond our wildest dreams. In those dreams, according to Spike Jonze, we’re still pretty clueless about sex and dating — activities people in his new near-future love story do via digital chat rooms and phone sex chat rooms.
Jonze tackles our latest cultural hotbed topic, the precarious direction technology and social media are taking, in a rose-tinted future Santa Monica. Everyone walks around talking to their earpieces, clicking through emails, playing video games, and living seamlessly with their phones. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) gets 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 middleman in the tech-filled gap between humans of the future.
Her, led by nuance, resists overt statements or anti-social media rants. People still hang out after work. Coworkers still go out for drinks. People still go on picnics. Her avoids being a heavyhanded dystopian trudge. Jonze is smarter than that.
Theodore purchases the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. The program clicks on and calls itself “Samantha.” Samantha is a disembodied robot with the sentience to name itself (herself?) and contemplate the limitations of her existence while organizing his files and deleting his unwanted emails.
Samantha becomes a sort of social experiment on both Theodore and the audience, as we connect to her (or don’t) without a body or face to look at. We assign her sentience with a human-sounding voice (albeit one that sounds strikingly similar to Scarlett Johansson, an actress we all know and love). As Theodore falls in love with her, so do we.
For the sake of debate, it’s worth noting that our brains are really complex, organic computers. Just like electronic programming and circuitry, most of what we do is genetic coding (call it “data”) passed down from parents to children through a smart circuitry system called “genes.” So much of what we do is our impulsive response to external stimuli. Just how much of our interests, likes, and behavior are precoded data is something scientists are still debating, but the question is worth asking: Are we so different from Samantha? We meet each other through chat rooms and Facebook, and sometimes we fall in love with total strangers over the phone.
Samantha operates at the lightning-fast speed of computers, but she also gets hurt and confused and scared. The film opens up important talks about what Samantha is, and what relationships of the future could look like, but Her refrains from being a dissertation on the digital era. Instead, it feels very beautiful and very human, a love story that discreetly carries a sentiment about technology that’s almost…hopeful.
And thank god, because we don’t need another I, Robot. Other directors have tried to make movies about robots — this is the first one with a pulse.