Spike Jonze has made a pretty amazing film with Her, and a day later I'm still mulling over some of the questions it raises.
Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely guy in the not-too-distant future who's nursing the wounds from a recent breakup. He hears about a new operating system for his phone and computer that's AI-driven and perfectly tailored to his unique personality and needs. He installs it, answers a few screening questions, and the system determines that a friendly, curious, and supportive Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is the ideal voice to guide him through his life. They start to develop feelings for one another. Things get complicated from there.
There's so much I loved about the world that's on display in this film: the weird fashions and colour schemes in everything we see, the commentary on topics as diverse as video games and motherhood, and tons of little details that might escape your notice but which make for an incredibly rich, funny, and detailed setting that feels completely realistic. Jonze's best work has always played with and subverted narrative conventions, and Her does that as effectively as anything he's made.
As the story progresses, it's not hard to see Samantha as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, and the film is a hell of a lot more honest about her character being a construct than other examples of the form. In the beginning Samantha's a tool for wish fulfillment, no different than anything else you can grab off a shelf, but she's an AI: she gets smarter, she learns, and as she does she evolves into much more than she was originally built to do. One of the central conflicts of the film is between the expectations of Theodore and the growing ambitions of Samantha, and it was interesting to see a character that's literally a bunch of lines of code showing more depth than similar female characters played by flesh and blood actresses.
No matter how high-definition our screens become or how much processor power can be corralled to make things seem indistinguishable from real… all these characters and apps and virtual assistants are constructs made by someone who's first priority is not accuracy, but sales. Why would anyone include negative feelings that make us feel bad in that scenario? We can talk all we want about authenticity but if the fantasy is more appealing than the reality (at first), and that's what people buy, we're only setting ourselves up for heartbreak down the road when these flawless constructs bump into the pain and struggle and imperfection that is humanity. The irony wasn't lost on me that Theodore's occupation in the film is to write sincere and heartfelt letters on behalf of people who want to express their emotions but would rather pay someone else to do it.
It's not just our expectations from the things we consume: the movie also has a ton to say about technology. Our general dependence on it, the public images we portray of ourselves and the emotions that drive them, how we filter information and rely on these tools and filters to give us what we want, and how the whole time we never really put much thought into who writes those filters and algorithms and if their biases might push us in directions we didn't expect or want. I've mentioned this before, and I think the first time I heard of it was this Diggnation episode from 2005 (skip to about 9:30) but there's a scene involving a search for essentially "women near me who are drunk and want to hook up". The scene goes in a weird and unexpected direction and it's one of the funniest moments in the film, but if we keep building technology based on what our most base desires are, I can't see a scenario where we don't end up at that point.
I've written this much without even touching on the beautiful cinematography, the score (written and performed by Arcade Fire), or the great supporting performances by Amy Adams and Rooney Mara. Her is one of the most funny, thought-provoking, and heartfelt movies I've seen all year, and you absolutely owe it to yourself to check it out when it comes out in December.