Spike Jonze, 2013
#5, 2013 Skandies
Hey, this is a good one. Her is about a guy who tries out a new, artificially intelligent, constantly evolving operating system for his computer, and finds that the two of them are falling for each other. This is not a new concept: thirty years ago, Orson Scott Card had Ender Wiggin sharing a kind of love with his personal AI, Jane, who talked to him through a jewel in his ear. You can probably guess a lot of the story beats here. Theodore the human and Samantha the AI will bond as Samantha discovers the great wide world using Theodore's life as her lens. Samantha will worry that she is less than human because she lacks a physical body. Then she will grow frustrated with Theodore because he can't do simple things like conduct thousands of conversations at once or read a book in a fraction of a second. Again, nothing incredibly new — heck, it even has echoes of the very different kind of artificial intelligence in Flowers for Algernon. What is new about Her, or at least new to me, is that it's a movie, and not just by happenstance — in fact, I would go so far as to say that it is largely a commentary on a particular movie trope. Its distinctive feature is that it keeps presenting us with the sort of couple-in-love scenes we've seen a million times before — goofing around at the fair, frolicking on the beach, exploring scenic vistas, playing games and music — except this time the guy is doing all these things alone. Intellectually we know that Samantha is "there" — we even hear her voice in his ear — but what we're actually seeing is a guy giddily running around by himself. Though I wonder how many viewers even registered this as unusual, given how accustomed we've become to seeing people out in public having animated conversations with people who aren't there. I mean, I'm enough of a luddite that I don't even own a smartphone, but even I have to concede that for the past decade my interpersonal relationships have been conducted almost entirely via Skype. The difference between being lonely and enjoying some company has been a matter of sitting alone in my apartment staring at a plastic rectangle and looking sad vs. sitting alone in my apartment staring at a plastic rectangle and looking happy.
But what I liked about Her was not its social commentary. Like I said, bonds between humans and helper AIs are not a new trope — another example that springs to mind is Tony Stark and the bodiless version of Jocasta, circa Y2K — but what I did not mention is that I am a sucker for it. The same goes for telepathic links (like in Jon Ingold's My Angel, to arbitrarily pick one of countless examples). I have spent enough of my life feeling totally isolated that this kind of miraculously deep intimacy is a very seductive fantasy to me. So while I thought the movie as a whole was fine, the part I was really invested in was the early sequence in which Samantha's relationship with Theodore grows from friendly to sisterly to romantic. (Flipping back through it just now, I was struck by the moment in which Theodore is playing a video game while Samantha kibitzes, and she mentions that an email has just arrived, and Theodore distractedly says, "Read email," and Samantha robotically replies, "OKAY - I - WILL - READ - EMAIL" before they both dissolve into laughter — not only is it fun banter, but it is a reminder that Samantha is not just a girl, that she actually did start out in part as an email-reading program, and that she and Theodore have come a long way together in just a short time. Squeee!)