Monday, January 20, 2014

Her (2013)



I've heard from several people that they have a hard time getting past the premise of Her. That's fair enough; it's about a dude who develops romantic feelings for his phone. If that's all you have to go on, it's a tough concept to buy into. Even if you accept the main character's feelings, how are you supposed to relate to them? Fortunately for me, I had several other ways into the film.

First is the cast. I love every one of the people mentioned on that poster. Joaquin Phoenix is one of the finest actors working today, as is Amy Adams. Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde are also very talented and I have good feelings about them from Side Effects and House respectively. And even though Scarlett Johansson's face never appears in the movie, she's also a great actor and I love her voice. Then there's Spike Jonze, an ambitious filmmaker with interesting things to say and powerful ways to say them. And finally, there was hardly a Top 10 list for 2013 that didn't include Her on it. I knew it would be about much more than a creepy relationship and I was right.

Her does have some things to say about the relationship between people and our technology. That's actually the least insightful commentary it offers though. It's not profound to suggest that we love our phones and computers, but Her goes much deeper than that. It's about relationships in general. What do we want from them? How much work are we willing to put in?


The nice thing about technology is that it serves our needs without demanding anything of us. If I want, I can spend all day on the Internet, reading people's opinions and learning new information without ever having to interact with the people sharing it. I can carefully control my social interactions, liking and retweeting what I want, not responding to things that make me uncomfortable or that I just don't feel like I have time for right then. When I'm dealing with someone in person though, it gets messy. There's no such thing as politely ignoring someone who's right there in front of me, waiting for me to respond. Technology provides an attractive buffer; that's part of what makes it so seductive.

For Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), who's going through a painful divorce with Rooney Mara's character, real relationships aren't worth it. He has some good friends (Amy Adams's character and her husband) and gets set up on dates (with Olivia Wilde, for instance), but he's profoundly skittish about real connection and that's made him a lonely person. When a new AI operating system comes out for his computer and phone, he buys it and finds he enjoys the company of the OS (voiced by Johansson).

What starts out as a really cool piece of technology quickly develops into something more. Johansson's Samantha isn't Siri. She responds like a real person, taking breaths, stammering for the right word, learning to create art and music. It's easy to see how Theodore falls for her. It's like talking to someone on the phone. And that's where the parallels to real relationships begin.

If you've ever been in a long-distance relationship, you know what I'm talking about. It's the sense that you're deeply connected to someone who isn't there physically. When you're talking to the person, everything feels right and fine. There's an ache for physical connection, but in the moment, the voice feels like enough. It's not sustainable though and when you're not actually talking to her or him, doubts start to creep in. Jealousy begins to form. And then you talk again and all that goes away and success feels possible.

Amazingly, Her made me feel all of that. When Theodore and Samantha are talking, it feels like a real relationship and I rooted for them. When they weren't, I wondered how this was ever going to last, and even if I wanted it to last. It's ridiculous, a man in a romantic relationship with his operating system. But then they'd talk again and I had images of him at 70, still in love with Samantha, who was still in love with him, and why is that so wrong? Just because they can't touch or have children, why is that any less of a real relationship than all the physical, but unhappy relationships that countless other people have?

Ownership seems to play a part in the answer to that question, but the movie addresses that too. Theodore may have purchased Samantha at the store, but he doesn't own her. The film makes it clear that these new OSs are smart and self-aware enough that they can reject unwanted relationships with their owners. Samantha isn't programmed to pretend to be in love with Theodore; she has agency and falls in love with him every bit as hard as he does with her. She only belongs to him in the sense that my wife belongs to me. Or conversely, the way I belong to my wife and Theodore in turn belongs to Samantha. As far as ownership and control goes, Theodore and Samantha have a real relationship. With all the complications that implies.

If Samantha were only acting according to her programming, Theodore would be a sad character who's simply unwilling to have a real relationship with a human being. And that's what he seems to be looking for when he first starts opening up to her. When he doesn't understand how much agency she has, she's easy to talk to. Revealing secret thoughts to her is no more threatening that writing in a journal. As the relationship progresses though, and as Samantha continues to learn and evolve, rejection by her feels more and more like a possibility. Fights occur; jealousies arise. It's not at all what Theodore thought he was getting into with her, but in most ways that count, he finds himself in a real relationship with a real person, disembodied though she may be.

I wouldn't dream of spoiling how the film ends, so I'll just say that by the finish I was completely invested in the relationship; hoping it could last while fearing that it wouldn't. Days after leaving the theater, I'm still haunted by Theodore and Samantha the way I am about some of my own past relationships, sorry that I no longer have direct contact, but loving the memory of the experience.

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