(Arcade Fire’s Supersymmetry for Atmosphere)
Astronaut Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors HAL.
HAL 9000: I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid can’t do that…
The technological singularity is defined as the point where Artificial Intelligence, A.I, grows and surpasses the intellectual bounds of its creators and masters. In the case of Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, the singularity is reached with terrifying results when the most advanced computer ever built, the HAL 9000, refuses its astronaut user Dave Bowman. Thereby stranding him to die in the void of outer space. Spike Jonze’s new whimsical new age love story Her takes that concept of A.I and applies it a tad differently, showcasing a man and a machine growing together.
Joaquin Phoenix continues with his remarkable acting resurgence with his shy, passive and socially stunted, but nonetheless entirely relatable and sympathetic, Theodore Twombly. A heartbroken “Hand-Written Letter” writer living in a not-too-distant future LA. His daily job entails authoring letters as various people to their loved ones. Apparently in the future personal messages of affection don’t come from a single heartfelt hand, they are a business model. However, living vicariously through these expressions of love and tenderness is the only real way Theodore feels anything loving these days, having just gone through a rough separation from his wife (another great supporting role for Rooney Mara).
The poor guy is lost in a seemingly endless urban glow, constantly reflected in the glass shells surrounding him (windows, glasses… etc.). He spends most of his time disconnected from people, preferring what is on his personal phone and playing Wii-style video games to the rest of the world around him. Until one ordinary day an ad for the new advanced A.I Operating System 1 catches his eye. While installing said OS1 he is asked a few questions that will help initialize the system to his needs; about his personality, mother and most importantly whether to have a female or male voice feedback. An interesting narrative parallel to the “voight-kampff” test used in Blade Runner, in which the turning point was also a question about one’s relationship to their mother.
When OS1 comes online Theodore, and we the audience, are introduced to the Samatha, voiced to pitch-perfection by Scarlett Johansson. A bubbly, caring sultry voice, suffice to say lonely Theodore is smitten rather quickly with Samatha, and perhaps much more.
Spike Jonze films his worlds always slightly skewed or oft-kilter, and Her is no different. With the pastel color pallet, high-waisted trousers and lens flares all adding to his futuristic aesthetic. He additionally renders the world Theodore lives in as only slightly more ahead technology-wise than our time now; for instance the big special effects are mostly background cityscapes. The audience doesn’t view this world as distant or alien, helping to make the central relationship of man and his machine all the more timely and poignant.
In my previous review of Blue is the Warmest Color I spoke of how much we want guidance in times of confusion and how most of us try to find it through love. Samantha comes into Theodore’s broken life as genuine presence that cares about him and is generally concerned for his well-being. Can any one truly blame him for falling for Samatha, even though she is made of transistors and circuits?
In addition to the singularity principle, there is the Alan Turing test developed in 1950 of distinguishing human interaction from a computer’s, determining whether or not a machine could in fact think like a human. Turing came to the conclusion that by around the year 2000 machine and human interaction would in fact be indistinguishable. Just imagine what is possible in the near future portrayed here with OS1 and Samantha especially.
The debate of what A.I can and will be able to achieve will go on and on, does that actually imply a consciousness and sentient? Well, that will have to be a philosophical question that can be argued for another time. The heart of the story told here is more what we project onto people and things alike. Theodore became more and more detached from his spouse as his idea of what marriage would be like shattered, he wanted a happy loving wife without the baggage that people bring into relationships. With Samantha he is now personifying a tool to help him through a tough time, projecting his own dreams and feelings onto her.
The two of them start to behave like any other couple, they tease, flirt, shoot the breeze, walk, and are even imitate together (not nearly as creepy as one might think). The question then becomes are his emotions he begins to feel real? His estranged wife Catherine and his college-friend Amy (a wonderfully natural Amy Adams) relate the two sides of argument for his new relationship. Catherine sees that he is falling in love with something specifically designed for his wants and needs, thus not wanting to accept the blemishes and faults of a flesh-and-blood human, while Amy doesn’t judge. He feels truly happy once again for the first time in a long while, isn’t that enough? The answers, and even some other intriguing questions, that are presented in the film are best left for someone to find out for themselves.
Going back to 2001: when HAL shuts out Dave his human master thereby surpassing its programming, it is in one single moment both the greatest triumph, and the greatest failure of mankind. We have created a new life-form, but it sees us as obsolete. Theodore bares his soul to a similar machine to HAL, and receives genuine warmth and understanding. Thus, no matter which direction the future progresses (Samantha or HAL), interaction (whether between human or machine) is where our greatest hopes and fears lie.
(As an interesting aside: Spike Jonze and Sofia Coppola broke off their four-year marriage around the same time Lost in Translation was released, which is about a neglected wife, with a career driven husband, trying to find a true human connection. I won’t give it away but Her might be presenting Jonze’s counter argument, ten years after the fact.)
9.5/10 (A wonderfully whimsical new-age love story steeped in science-fiction, philosophy and above all heart.)