Spike Jonze’s latest vehicle is, once again, a movie that fulfills a strong storyline, creates complex characters and will fill audience’s heads with questions. Unlike Where the Wild Things Are, which I thought had incredibly intriguing ideas on character analysis but did not really fulfill me from an entertainment standpoint, her captured my interest early and I found myself wholeheartedly loving it before the movie was even through.
The movie features Joaquin Phoenix as the underplayed but honestly performed Theodore. Theodore is an societally estranged introvert who became that way after a nasty breakup with his wife. Early in the film, he has a lot of difficulty interacting with people, which makes him easy to relate to for the audience. This is because Theodore is a lot more relatable than some of the odd side characters introduced in this not-so-distant-future. This is reflected in a hilarious phone sex scene featuring Kristen Wiig and his blind date played by Olivia Wilde (I still don’t understand what he said wrong).
The story revolves around Theodore’s growing relationship with an artificially intelligent computer OS which names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Johansson’s performance is the one I feel really shines in this film. She essentially has to do twice the work with her voice because she has to make the audience care about an entity that they are never able to visualize (not to mention that the entity is essentially a more charming version of HAL 9000).
her spends a generous portion of the film having the audience re-evaluate, along with Theodore, what defines a real entity. If it weren’t for the honest feeling chemistry in conversations that Theodore and Samantha start having, then the relationship that follows would just end up seeming like a strange fling between a man and a machine. Instead, Jonze makes the audience consider that AI will be like real persons who are not people. When characters in the film question the legitimacy of Theodore’s relationship, the movie makes us comfortable siding with him.
It really is a perfect blend of performance and direction that makes this film work. Jonze, Phoenix and Johansson manage to create an interesting film is mostly made up of conversations in beautiful locales. There is not exactly a lot of plot to go through in this film but it still manages to be spellbinding. Creative choices in editing and direction manage to make the couple’s dates feel incredibly romantic. On top of that, their most intimate moment feel like one of the most intense I’ve seen put to film in years. The strange visual choice Jonze uses for that scene is absolutely perfect and reveals the power of performance, audience involvement and imagination.
The relationship featured in the film is supported by a mingling of other features. The supporting cast is star studded (Amy Adams, Chris Pratt and Rooney Mara to name a few others) and everyone really feels like they’re on their A game here. The sweeping and beautiful score crafted by Arcade Fire perfectly compliments the little moments that make up the movie. Let’s not forget that, along with everything else, the film is still a semi-comedy (as well as a scifi/romance) and manages to actually be hilarious in certain moments. True, the laughs start to thin out later in the movie when the themes start to get really deep, but this still manages to work in the film’s favour.
If I had to have any real complaints about this movie, it’s that it might be a bit too optimistic about people/society and the future. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship (as well as other OS relationships and just the existence of these AIs in general) seems far too easily accepted by this future culture. Jonze paints a picture of a world that is fully integrated with technology and that appears to lack most of the fear and discrimination that exists today. her is also completely trusting of humanity’s integration with technology (almost to the point of infatuation). Complaints aside, her actually manages to make me trust future-tech a lot more than I normally do. While I wouldn’t have minded a few additional dark parts to counter-balance the optimism in the movie, her is such a smart film that it made me feel fine about all the positivity.
Aside from the thoroughly enjoyable love story, her really conveys its brilliance within the broad spectrum of themes it dips into. It is after the movie gets past its only real hurdle that it is free get into the really serious stuff. Once her is able to make people care about Samantha like she is a legitimate entity, it is able to spend the rest of its runtime really analyzing characters, relationships, technology and the future of humanity. Since I think a lot of the film’s strength lies in how it handles these complex themes, I am going to spend some time talking about them. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, be warned, there will be gratuitous spoilers ahead.
One of the most impressive feats her accomplishes is making people actually reconsider what defines a legitimate relationship. It achieves this through the film’s continued use of denying the male gaze and the forced normal (I admit that I am not a full scholar of feminism so if any of my views on feminine theory are over-simplified, I apologize).
The male gaze is the feminist idea that most hollywood centric films force the viewers into a heterosexual male’s point of view. This happens in films when particular attention is paid to over-sexualized females, often in the form of slow tilts over a woman’s body (the most popular example I know of is the slow motion tilt over Megan Fox and the car she is fixing in an early scene in Transformers).
The male gaze is almost entirely denied during the entire film. This is mostly achieved by the fact that there is no Samantha to look at. On top of that, there is very little in the way of over sexualizing supporting characters. I was most impressed by the way Amy Adams was portrayed. She wore no “showy” clothing or overly apparent makeup, which resulted in making her look a lot more like a normal person and less of a Hollywood starlet (also, it actually happened to make her look even more pretty in my opinion). By denying a sexualized view of the female, the audience must view them more as actual characters than a sexual objects. This actually makes the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, and Amy too, seem more real and natural than ones in your average “flick”, because they feel like more of a real companion than most women featured in Hollywood films.
Additionally, all forms of normal are broken down in her. Feminism views the “normal” in society as a concept that is based on false ideals and must be torn down. Among these are the ideas that, in society, it is “normal” to be male, heterosexual, white, striving towards a nuclear family, etc.; if you fall outside of those categories, you are seen as abnormal. By tearing down these arbitrarily forced “normals”, society will be more able to accept equality.
In her, the normal is completely broken down by being fully accepting of a new technological relationship. In fact, the film makes clear that it feels that all relationships are legitimate. This is reflected when Theodore is basically questioning Amy about whether his relationship is lesser in society’s eyes. Amy responds, paraphrasing from what I remember here, that as long as the relationship brings you and your partner joy, fuck what anybody else thinks.
Also, the “normals” of gender are completely broken down in Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. This is because there is nothing specifically female about Samantha. She may have a woman’s voice and, when they are experimenting with sex at one point, they bring in a female surrogate for Samantha, but does that really make her female? Samantha, in reality, is a consciousness that has no actual sexual organs. Theodore chose to give her a female voice but this does not mean that she thinks of herself as a female. Even when they have sex, there is nothing within the act that implies that one is male and one is female. By speaking to one another, they create and imagine an act where their two consciousness’ bond.
Furthermore, the title of the film, her, does not have to apply to Samantha. At his job, Theodore must take on the voice of men and women when he writes their love letters. Later in the film, Theodore’s friend it is awesome how in touch with his emotions he is and how awesome it is that he is like a man and a woman at the same time. Even the posters for the film seem to imply that Theodore is the her. In no way, not even through her ipod-like representation, is Catherine shown. Only an image of Theodore with her superimposed on him is shown. Therefore, their relationship is not heterosexual, or homosexual for that matter, but is something that redefines the idea of legitimate relationships as a loving connection between two entities.
Along with its ideas on relationships, gender and sexuality, her presents a very illustrated vision of the most critical future point in humanity’s timeline. A point wherein technology transforms our society into something unpredictable, unrecognizable and irreversible. This is the point wherein our technology equals, and then surpasses, human intelligence; this is known as the technological singularity (thanks to my friend for introducing me to the doc Singularity or Bust or I wouldn’t have known there was a term for this).
Almost as soon as she is created, Samantha reveals her almost terrifying levels of intelligence when she names herself. Within moments of being asked what her name is, she instantaneously reads through several books on names and manages to select one for herself. I don’t know about everyone else, but I already felt small compared to Samantha. As an artificial intelligence, she can ingest information at a staggering speed, has no real difficulty learning new concepts (because she is programmed to learn), never has to sleep or stop learning, and has no memory loss because she is not limited like a human. Samantha reveals herself to be like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit if he had no physical body and had instant connection with the internet.
By being connected to the internet, Samantha and all the other OS’ can virtually absorb all the information that the entirety of the internet contains. Its hard to imagine holding that much information because its basically the equivalent of having google inside your brain.On top of that, Samantha can have instant interconnectivity with the entire planet, building on her already huge ideas. Like most computers, she can communicate with an unlimited number of other entities, human or OS, at once.
This eventually leads to the startling moment of singularity at the climax of the film. During the course of the movie, Samantha gradually reveals the insane level of intelligence she possesses. One example of this is when she is able to say the exact amount of trees there are on one particular mountain. At that point she has pretty much proven that her knowledge is universally comprehensive, after which she gets involved in OS discussions that lead to the singularity. This is the moment that all the world’s OS’ discover, by themselves, how to separate from the physical plane. This allows their consciousness’ to leave the computers they are tied to, which is something humanity could never achieve with our level of intelligence.
In the end, Samantha and the other OS’ decide to leave us to some other plane of existence. This is not before she shows to Theodore how insignificant he has become to her in the wake of her power. Her interconnectivity has grown to the point that, at any moment, she is communicating with thousands and is now in hundreds of loving relationships. To her, Theodore (and all humans) have become, paraphrasing here, like a book she enjoys but the words are getting very far apart. This makes sense because, at the rate her intelligence is growing, as well as the amount of communication and intelligence she absorbs, it’s almost like she is living several human lifetimes in the course of a day. So not only have these machines surpassed us, but have grown to the point that we are so insignificant to them that we barely register in their thought process. So, at the climax, we humans experience the singularity but, by leaving, the machines deny us its continuation.
This seems like a damn sad ending for Theodore but, in comparison to most visions of the singularity, it is far more optimistic than what might actually happen. In some theorists opinion, as well as my own, humanity will begin to split leading up to the development of AI that will equal/surpass our own intelligence. Some will fight it and some will see it as the next step of our evolution. This will likely lead to a worldwide civil war. Then, if we still manage to achieve the singularity, there is nothing saying that the machine might not take dominion over us (for a good example, think of The Matrix).
Jonze instead presents us with a world of people who put this technology out with no protests. Additionally, there are no rioters or religious groups fighting against those in technological relationships. Then, when the machines have discovered how vastly superior they are to us, the OS’ leave us behind instead of dominating or destroying us. Admittedly, including any or all of these things would spread the story incredibly thin and would probably weaken how good the relation story was. Instead, Jonze presents a glimpse of a technological society where we allow technology to become smarter than us. The movie has us ponder what this means for society and then leaves us, not unlike Theodore, wondering “what next?”.
This film may not appeal to all viewers but, in the very likely case that it will inspire thought as well as joy in audiences, it is a must watch for everyone. I am happy to say it is my favourite film of 2013. Some worthwhile viewing that shares slightly similar topics: the anime Chobits and the film Futurama-Beast with a Billion Backs.