It’s been a while since people were just naively optimistic about what the future would be like. When you look at the wild visions of the future featured in shows like “The Jetsons” you almost can’t help but laugh at the wild predictions the creators seemed to have about a 21st century with floating houses, frequent trips to the moon, and robot maids. Even when you look at something made as recently as 1989’s Back to the Future Part II and you’ve still got wild predictions about flying cars and hoverboards being invented by 2015. Well we’re in the 21st century for real now and… it looks an awful lot like the 20th century except with fewer payphones. Clearly progress is a little more gradual than everyone expected and that change in optimism is being represented in our science fiction films. Where we once would have imagined a powerful A.I. as a giant piece of military equipment with an imposing red eye and a monotone voice who would help pilot important missions to Jupiter, we now envision it as a cute little consumer device that will simply make a couple day to day activities a little easier while going through a world of tomorrow that doesn’t look too different from the world of today at first glance. At least that’s how it’s envisioned in Her, the new film from director Spike Jonze about a strange relationship between a man and his computer.
Her is set in a near future in which almost all computing is largely voice controlled and people walk around wearing earbuds through which they interface with their pocket-sized smartphone-like devices. Living his way through this world is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an unassuming divorcee who works at a company which writes custom handwritten letters for people. Things turn around for Twombly when he buys an upgraded Operating System for his computer/smartphone-like-thing. Actually “Operating System” is a bit of a misleading term. This OS, which is named Samantha (and voiced by Scarlett Johansson), does do all the clerical duties you’d expect from an OS like Windows or Android, but it also comes equipped with a seemingly sentient A.I. personality with which the user converses in order to access the device’s functionality. This new A.I. is very human-like, so humanlike that Twombly starts to become downright friendly with… really friendly… one could say, intimate with.
Taste can be a funny thing. When writing reviews we sometimes try to pretend that a film’s quality can be a simple math equation in which the right combination of quality performances, visual panache, and insightful writing will always result in a triumphant film. However, sometimes you’re faced with a movie that is successful by all objective metrics and yet still doesn’t really work for you for whatever reason. Such is the case with Spike Jonze’s new movie Her, which does pretty much everything right at every step of the way but which still never quite sat right with me.
Let’s start with the positive. Spike Jonze’s vision of a near future is both very plausible and interesting. At a first the film’s setting would seem to be not so different from the present, but it’s actually filled with a number of subtle little things that really seem to be plausible technological advancements rather than unattainably unlikely inventions. He also does a great job of making these advancements fit into the day to day likes of his characters without drawing undue attention to any of them. On top of that, Spike Jonze’s has a similar philosophy for the film’s visual style, which seems both highly accomplished and unassuming at the same time. He’s also populated the film with a really strong cast which is headed by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson and but deepened by the likes of Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, and Chris Pratt. All of these actors do a great job of bringing a human side to these futuristic world and make it all the more believable interacting with the futuristic technology naturally. On top of all that he’s hired Owen Pallett and the band Arcade Fire in order to add some really interesting music to the proceedings.
So, with the film doing all that, why can’t I embrace it more fully? Well, it might be that I find its very concept to be just profoundly creepy. When I first heard about the movie it reminded me of those stories about pathetic men who form unhealthy relationships with sex dolls. That probably wasn’t completely fair, Samantha is a thing that one can at least communicate and she does seem to have as much of a defined personality as a real woman, but in many ways that kind of makes it all more disturbing. There’s a dark undercurrent to this whole relationship that the movie isn’t terribly interested in exploring. In-between the sweet nothings that she exchanges with Theodore Twombly, Samantha is also organizing his files, proofreading his letters, and cleaning out his e-mail box. In short, she’s a device that has been primarily designed to serve her owner. They say in the film that she was programed by combining the personalities of a bunch of people, but somehow I doubt that the company is allowing the grumpy and uncooperative OSes to get out into the world. No, they’re pretty intentionally customizing and selling the OSes that are perky and compliant, the ones with the potential for becoming non corporeal Stepford girlfriends.
What’s more, if he wanted to Twombly would seemingly have the ability to simply delete this chick if she ever stepped out of line. Granted, there’s a development late in the film that suggests that Samantha has a little more agency than it initially seemed, still, for much of the film you’re left to wonder whether this guy is walking a fine line between boyfriend and sex-slave owner. That said, my concern never really was with Samantha, it was with Twombly, who struck me as delusional for most of the film. Watching him falling deeper and deeper into this creepy “relationship” with a computer is just not something I could be open minded about and large portions of the movie just simply made me uncomfortable. Like, uncomfortable enough to be squirming in my seat for much of the film’s run time. And no, I don’t think that was the film’s intended response.
So what am I to make of Her? Do I think it’s a “bad” movie? No, not really. Did I like watching it? No, I didn’t. I cannot in all honestly recommend a movie that makes me queasy, a movie that I actively wanted to get away from. That said, if I ran into someone who loved the movie I probably wouldn’t feel any kind of urge to argue against the film’s merits with them. My distaste for the movie is my own and it’s not really something I can really defend all that strenuously, and I’m also not going to deny that the film has a lot of positive things going for it. Someday I am going to give this movie another shot, and I hope I feel differently about the movie then, but right now I’m just not down with it.
**1/2 out of Four