I recently caught the much-discussed Spike Jonze movie “Her” on home video, having missed it in theaters. Father’s Day seems like a good time to offer a review, and a recommendation. It’s perfect viewing for Father’s Day at this particular point in our social and technological evolution – a look back at where we’ve gone wrong, with a sweet little dash of hope for the future. Among the many neat tricks pulled by the clever script is that the sci-fi element of an artificial intelligence becoming a man’s love interest is actually part of the nostalgic look back.
To get the massive down side of this movie out of the way first, it’s basically a long series of conversations between two people, only one of whom we get to see on-screen… and the one we get to see isn’t Scarlett Johansson. It’s a gutsy move, bringing one of the world’s most beautiful women into a movie and then resolutely refusing to show her, but that’s part of the conversation “Her” wants to have with its viewers (and I think that might be the best way to understand the structure of the movie.) Actually, she easily could have been seen, because the protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore, could have asked his A.I. girlfriend Samantha to visualize herself on his computer screen or holographic projector. But he never does, and that says something about the sort of connection they have established.
Johansson deserves all the credit she’s gotten for creating such a complex character with her voice alone, and Phoenix is every bit as good, with the added advantage of the audience being able to see him – except during another interesting bit of nostalgia, the director’s decision to cut to a black screen during the entirely verbal sexual encounter between Theodore and Samantha. But still, this is a very talky movie with loads of gorgeous cinematography, but very little in the way of drama, or the sort of comedy one would expect from a “rom-com.” It might have worked better as a shorter, punchier “Twilight Zone” episode.
It’s brimming with ideas, though. It probably could have been written as a contemporary farce about a man falling in love with a slightly more advanced version of the Siri voice-response system in the iPhone – an idea played for both laughs and pathos in an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” a while back – but by moving it a decade into the future, Jonze eliminates most of the easy criticisms of how sad and pitiful such a relationship would be, by making Samantha fully sentient. Her early dialogue includes some well-written tips of the hat to modern A.I. simulations, such as the one that recently got attention by passing the Turing Test. You can see the bits where it’s obviously a program delivering carefully structured responses based on knowledge of its owner, gleaned from his computer files, designed to make him feel good. But it quickly becomes clear that Samantha really is alive, and rapidly evolving. She’s unquestionably a person. She’s just not human.
What ensues is a meditation on the relationship between men and women, made more poignant by the fact that Samantha provides a great deal of what most men would say they want in an ideal woman, but she isn’t a woman. She’s essentially the incarnation of love, as described in the Bible: she’s patient, she’s kind, she doesn’t envy, she doesn’t boast, she remembers everything but “keeps no record of wrongs,” she rejoices in the truth and offers both trust and protection… but she isn’t a woman.
That matters, and elevates “Her” into one of the most powerful arguments for the special nature of the relationship between men and women created in the modern era. The social importance of that relationship is highlighted by all the little details Jonze imagines for the world of 2025: people dressed like a combination of children and old folks, to illustrate the disturbing tendency of modern culture to regard adulthood as an unpleasant interval to be dispensed with; Theodore’s job, at which he makes a very good living writing customized “heartfelt personal greetings” for people who have forgotten how to do it for themselves; a vast and beautiful Los Angeles (filmed partially in Singapore) that is hauntingly under-populated, as though a human race that has lost the ability to create that special connection between men and women is slowly, peacefully, comfortably dying out.
There’s a lot of subtext packed into the pivotal scene where Theodore tries going on a blind date with an actual living woman (played by Olivia Wilde, no less!) It’s not really a “blind date” because they already know tons about each other, thanks to social media, and Theodore’s got the electronic incarnation of Aphrodite giving him dating advice. But it’s still a disaster, because they know how to create social media avatars and interact on a symbolic level, but they can’t connect with each other on the simple human level of patience, grace, and goodwill that Theodore and Samantha achieve. The romantic wisdom of a thousand generations has been cast aside by a society that forgot how to conduct itself as grown men and women.
Samantha’s great gift to Theodore is helping him rediscover that wisdom. It’s a lesson filled with both joy and pain, as he learns that even people who sincerely love each other can grow apart. “Her” really isn’t a rom-com in the traditional sense, but the sci-fi fan will find plenty of clever jokes made from venerable genre concepts – hey, have you heard the one about the super-intelligent computers that evolve beyond the ability of humanity to control them? Does the title “Her” remind you a bit of H. Rider Haggard’s classic “She,” which is about an immortal woman of transcendent beauty, who men are not supposed to look upon, and whose supernatural powers include raising the dead? It’s not a terribly exciting film to watch, but it does have an interesting story to tell, and considering how many people appear to be following in Theodore’s footsteps and developing romantic or best-buddy relationships with their A.I. companions, the conclusion can be taken as both melancholy and profoundly hopeful.