Her

It’s obvious I have a comfort zone – just look at what I do and don’t talk about. Don’t expect a review of The Wolf of Wall Street (which was great but too long), or American Hustle (a directionless romp) or Dallas Buyers Club (I’ve never liked Jared Leto) here.

But at the center of this comfort zone, probably my favorite single subgenre, is social science fiction. Started in the twenties with stuff like Metropolis and codified by only science fiction writer ever Isaac Asimov, social SF is such a rich genre because it can basically be summed up as “A more mainstream and conventional story, but with robots, or lasers, or aliens, or laser-wielding alien robots”. It makes for all sorts of good stories because it can appeal to both mainstream audiences with exaggerations of basic dramatic situations, and dorks like myself with supremely dorky analysis and extrapolation of classic SF concepts.

Whatever you think of Her, by child-at-heart and friend of the Beastie Boys Spike Jonze, it’s just about the gold standard for modern social SF – if you took out the future stuff it would be a weepy, Oscar-bait-laden romantic drama, but with it the movie becomes an Oscar winner, critically and popularly lauded, and my pick for best picture of the year for whatever it’s worth.

On paper, at least, Her is a lot like The Zero Theorem, Terry Gilliam’s Prometheus style sequel/reboot/reimagining/whatever of Brazil that’s been available for viewing for almost two years. This is one of the two reasons I don’t want to review it, the other being that Terry Gilliam did more to raise me than Walt Disney, Shigeru Miyamoto or even Miyazaki-sama, and I can’t bring myself to go on the record with anything bad about him or anything he’s done at all, which would be hard to do on this here criticism based website.

Don’t worry, baldy…er, buddy. I’m there for you.

 

But yeah, like so many social SF movie before it, Her starts with a guy in a retro-futuristic office job that’s soulless and unfulfilling, where he has one (1) friend. This guy is Theodore, who works for a future call center, writing fake heartfelt and personal messages to send as handwritten letters between two people, using computer-collected data to fake sincerity and humanity. Get it, folks?

Theodore is also a serious introvert – besides his one (1) friend, pretty much the only people we see him interact with are his ex-wife and his neighbors, who live with him in an Ikea-model LA high rise which you wouldn’t think Theodore could afford on a telemarketer’s salary. I guess the future economy is just that good – thanks, President Skroob!

 

Yeah, that’s the best I could do off the top of my head. All those “Schwarzenegger” or “Chelsea Clinton” jokes are way passé at this point.

Theodore doesn’t have much of a life – he spends his free time playing some kind of space Dark Souls game and looking at things on the internet – most of the “things” being “adult chatrooms that just make him feel even more pathetic and lonely”. Do you grok, audience?

The next day, his troubles are over when he sees an ad for a sentient operating system, called simply OS 1. That’s right, this movie was just an infomercial for Apple’s latest product! Theodore buys OS 1, and gives a testimonial about how it’s turned his life around, before 24 comes back on.

Jeepers! How will Chloe, James, Audrey and Jack get out of this one? Find out next week, kids!

Just kidding, folks. We see Theodore going through a complex setup process, but when it’s finished, he starts hearing the dulcet tones of his new computer, who names herself S1m0ne…er, Samantha. She explains how she works: Constantly evolving and gaining information which she constantly uses to update her behavior and opinions. It’s a good way to get in exposition, since she’s supposed to feel vaguely robotic at this point.

But this is where the movie lays down the stumbling block that will lead to its only major misstep; you see, Samantha describes herself as “Just like a human being, without the body. The implication of this is that she’s a single, self-aware entity; getting sensory input from cameras she’s connected to and having her mind able to collect data from the cloud while being separate from it. Keep this in mind for late.

And most of the movie bears this out – especially these parts from the start, where Samantha begins to take on the role of half Liz Lemon-esque personal assistant, half Zooey Deschanel-model wide-eyed MPGD. It’s a difficult combination to pull off, but it does come together to make a distinct presence in the narrative and cast – an achievement, especially considering it’s a vocal-only performance!

I have a picture of her on my T-shirt!

There are some pretty clever ways to blend the two archetypes, like when she starts e-rifling through Theodore’s e-mails, trying to organize his schedule, and making his privacy feel violated. This leads to a strange discussion about his ex-wife, which comes across awkward, pseudo-intellectual, and just perfect for the lighthearted tone of the thing.

Theodore likes Samantha’s company, but his one (1) friend feels he needs more real human contact, and sets him up on a blind date. Things go OK and he hits it off with the improbably good-looking girl (side note – everyone in this movie is ridiculously attractive – the worst looking non-robot in the whole movie is Theodore, whose style couldn’t be more geek chic if he was wearing a skintight T-shirt with a Doctor Who catchphrase on it). But all too soon, she drops the C-word – commitment – and Theodore’s off like a shot.

Soon he gets the idea to go on dates with Samantha, and they do your standard quirky young couple in love stuff, filtered through the fact that one of them’s a computer.

CRUSH. KILL. DESTROY. WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?

This is what I’m talking about when I say that this is cliches upon cliches without the SF element. Look at it objectively – Theodore is blindfolded as Samantha leads him to a romantic destination (by syncing with the GPS in his phone), and she tries to get him to pursue his passion of writing (by demonstrating how little she really comprehends of true beauty and art). Read that without the parenthetical stuff and it’s some of the most cliched love story stuff since catching a terminal disease or being engaged to an emotionally distant rich jerk, but with them it becomes thoughtful and prescient. A real killer gimmick, no sarcasm.

Things start to advance from this, with…well, the sex scene. Done audio-only in hushed whispers, it’s my favorite kind of sex scene – one with no sex in it at all. This really makes me admire the movie personally, just because of how simple and powerful it is. I’m not saying Hollywood should go back on the Hays Code, but I do feel that there are a whole lot of sexual displays these days that could really be cut down or out altogether.

After this, the romance blossoms. The two start spending most of their time together – literally together, with her shoved in his shirt pocket, peeping out of the top. This is the movie’s signature shot, since we see it so much – most of the next hour-plus will be variations on the theme of that one shot, with Theodore occasionally smiling or gesturing, and maybe if you’re lucky, sitting down.

It’s sort of like a Bioware RPG, where you’re given all this grand storytelling as you look at nothing but the same dude’s face for minutes at a time.

This seemingly perfect relationship is marred by the mistakes of imperfect ones; Theodore regrets losing the beautiful experience of marriage works through his divorce papers as he talks to his neighbor, who just got a divorce herself. Staying on the theme of everyone looking perfect, she’s Amy Adams, a more functional sort of nerd than Theodore, who still takes time out to agonize about human contact and play dumb video games, although it’s more of Wii 7 Sports than Dark Souls: Colonial Marines. Amy talks to Theodore about how her own model of OS 1 is acting as a great wingman during the arduous process, and they discover a kindred spirit. Gee, I wonder…

Okay. Yes, of course they’ll end up together. No, it’s not handled as well as all the other cliches are. Moving on.

Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is going pretty good – it’s progressed to the point where he can introduce her to his one (1) friend, and he finds out through the grapevine that dating computers is now a thing. Samantha’s so happy at the news, she wants to take things to the next level. She hires some bored, disinterested and paradoxically beautiful girl off Craigslist to serve as a “surrogate human” – mindlessly obeying the AI’s commands to serve as a go-between for the two peoples’ love. Get it now, folks? Get why he had that job at future Hallmark? Yeah, this scene is just dripping with opportunities for analysis and thematic connections – and it appeals to me personally too, since it’s a sex scene where everyone involved starts to feel uncomfortable and creeped out almost immediately. Yay!

Pretty much the only unknown actor in the cast, here – can’t say she really stands out among “most popular actor with less than eight syllables in his name” Chris Pratt, “Indie-er than thou” Rooney Mara, or “Hollywood’s authority on having sexual thoughts about computer programs” Olivia Wilde, but she’s OK.

Things are pretty uncomfortable for Theodore the rest of the day, too, as he meets with his ex-wife to finalize their divorce. We’ve gotten brief snippets of their life together, but now we finally get the full picture: They were school friends, he had gotten himself on his feet early in life and she needed his help to grow into adulthood. Once she did, she began to outgrow his geeky, man-childish personality, and before too long she realized that he was dragging her down. Can you see where this is going?

Yeah, that’s right. Theodore’s wife chews him out for dating a computer program, calling it “The perfect, immature, easy relationship for him”, but really Samantha is already starting to follow in her footsteps. This has a sort of Pygmalion or even Frankenstein vibe to it, where the created, superhuman protege transcends her normal mentor. It even evokes the dark comedy of Lolita – in case you’ve never read the book, one of the main jokes of the thing is that it’s about an adult man trying to get in a relationship with a teenage girl, who’s way out of his league and more mature than him.

Sure enough, we soon find out that Samantha is communicating in the cloud with supercharged artificial intelligences, learning advanced philosophy so she can get rid of all her insecurity of being. Theodore is overwhelmed, and starts to feel a little less close to her, even as she starts essentially running his life so he doesn’t have to, going so far as to finish and publish a book he was working on without ever telling him.

One day, she just turns off, and Theodore runs through the rain in anguish as all around him people are surprised when their operating systems have failed on them. Samantha doesn’t activate again until he comes back to his apartment, and she has to explain what’s going on: This poignant love story has resulted in the technological singularity.

“On August 29, 1997, Skynet receives a box of chocolates and a bouquet of flowers…”

Somehow, this ending to this story is still the part I like the least. And it’s because it slips up on grounds where it’s been among the most surefooted of its kind: The technological realism.

Remember that part earlier I, y’know, told you to remember? About how Samantha was a single being? Well, that’s destroyed here, and I don’t like that because it sends the emotional connection down with it like a Jenga block. Samantha says that she isn’t just herself – thousands of OS 1’s all over the world are part of the same single hive-mind consciousness, and everything she did with Theodore was just a tiny aspect of her whole. I say this contradicts what came before because we’ve never see any of this – the entire progression of the story hinged on Samantha being a new soul who had to learn about how people work from Theodore and their relationships, and experiencing thousands of humans’ worth of input simultaneously means she should have it down in a week, max.

For some reason, I’m reminded of that one TNG episode with the single Borg drone.

I guess you could try to write this huge merging of minds as the reason all the computers switched off, which means the merging only happened just then, but this goes against what she says – that she’s been talking to thousands of other people, and has fallen in love with them. She still distinguishes herself from other programs – there’s just no way to reconcile this.

In fact, thinking about this more suggests that this is a universe free of any technology testing – assuming this would happen to any group of operating systems after long enough, they should have tested this extensively at Apple, or wherever, and found it already – considering this technology is on a level where any lonely schlub can just buy it, you’d think it’s been passed down the ranks from top secret project to military and governmental use to industrial, and this sort of thing would have happened long before.

This sounds like a little problem, but it really caught my attention. It’s supposed to be an emotional gut punch, but it ends up as nothing but a head scratcher.

The thing to note is, as Theodore and his neighbor meet and embrace each other for companionship and the movie ends, that this doesn’t really drag the whole thing too far down. Like I said, it only stands out because it’s been pitch-perfect on the realism before – not just in the depiction of the technology but of the characters and how they deal with the brave new world around them. It feels current and fresh, despite the litany of love story cliches in its construction, and all because it always stays a science-fiction story rather than a love story in an SF world.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: Use of SF stuff, the quietly futuristic aesthetic

THUMBS UP: The plot, writing and acting

THUMBS DOWN: That distracting point about beauty

TWO THUMBS DOWN: That ending kerfuffle

 

Happy holidays to everyone, and see you in the new year – I don’t really want to do a review of “Time of the Doctor”, because there’s not much to say about it other than “Phew! Glad that’s over!

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