Film Micrœview #93: Her (2013)

07.06.2014 § Leave a comment

Her

Rating: Good.

Her is about a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence. It is science fiction, but each of its sci fi ideas are rooted in human emotion. First and foremost this is, actually, a love story (a “Spike Jonze love story”). That feeling of being hopelessly too small for someone else? Beautifully captured here. That feeling of growing out of someone else? Also nailed it. Grappling with human follies of deception and possessiveness? The technological premise of Her enables novel hyperbolizations.

An early moment in the film when Joaquin Phoenix’s human character Theodore finds himself to his surprise opening up emotionally to his computer’s operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), he tells her that he’s concerned he may never feel anything new again — that all feelings remaining to be felt by him for the rest of his life will be merely weaker versions of those he has already felt. This notion in and of itself is a strikingly great characterization. But more than that, it comes full circle at the end of the film, when Samantha explains that the reason she’s leaving him is that he’s like a deeply loved book which at this point she’s reading one word at a time with infinitely-long feelings spaces between them. She’s exhausted him. He can make her feeling nothing new — only shades of what he once made her feel before.

This also relates to a scene where Theodore — the one with the body — has to explain away the end of the sexual honeymoon period has been turned on its head, as here Samantha — the one with limitless intellectual capacity — essentially must explain the end of her honeymoon with Earth. If Samantha were an average person in a non-science-fiction love story, this might not be her reason for needing to move on to continue growing — but Her’s point is that Samantha has literally every reason, and thus she represents any and all of the possible reasons why one person may need to move on; in this sense Her aspires to be the ultimate love story.

In the climactic confrontation Samantha reveals that she has fallen in love with other people besides Theodore, breaking his heart. In this moment, Samantha demonstrates the human weakness Failure to Communicate, which — apparently even as she and her brethren have transcended physics — has not yet been transcended. You hate her as she spouts cliches like “the heart expands the more you love.” But you also hate Theodore as he demands that she love him and only him, that she is his and no one else’s — clearly this being is beyond that and needs more to be happy. In Her, Jonze has created the ultimate situation in which one cannot provide everything ones lover needs: we understand as a fact that Samantha is capable of being fully present with thousands of people at once without distraction and that it in fact bolsters her ability to interact with each one of those people (“I’m yours but not yours” she says). But still it doesn’t matter. Humans are irrational and have needs to impose on others. And humans also can’t ever seem to face their own biases, as Theodore here is unable to grok how one thing (in this case attention) can mean something utterly different to oneself as it does to another.

Partway through the movie, Samantha invites a third party into the relationship, claiming it’s really important to her and she thinks it will be really good for them. Enter Her’s novel addressing of the very human struggle with relationships expanding cooperatively beyond monogamy, in all the multifarious forms that takes. I didn’t see this bit coming, and it was quite genius, and probably could be an entire movie itself: another human that Samantha has been getting close to willingly wants to join their relationship as a “surrogate”. Here’s what that means: she wears a device that allows Samantha to either control her to some extent or to communicate instructions to her. This human is suppressing everything that she might express so that she can act out as if she is this other being. In allowing this non-corporeal being to physically interface with this other human, she derives deep pleasure, even though she is in doing so eliminating the entire external presence of her own personality. That’s some heady plus soul-crushing stuff all in one. I still haven’t quite unpacked it all. The failure of this idea to work kicks off a first breakdown in the relationship. I suppose Samantha could have just 3D printed a love doll of her choosing and had Theodore fuck that, but that wouldn’t make for good cinema would it? More importantly, that’d take this down the sci-fi road, rather than the still always very viscerally human emotional one.

Her smartly chose not to focus on the sociological scale. This was mostly glossed over, hinted at only in asides — the progression of OS-human love going from weird (only ever shown to be taboo in people’s individual personal worries) to completely acceptable. It didn’t, for example, deal much with whether it was perceived as less acceptable to date ones own OS. While it might have been interesting to get more information about this, I understand that in order to focus on this still very human love story, it kept it on just how it affects the handful of characters. This movie features a being that is transcending existence, which is incredibly interesting — yet it is not about that transcendence, it is about the feeling of being left behind by any of the many lesser things like that between humans. (I do admit that I wish the gender roles had been switched, challenging norms.) (Also, the movie did not go this road at all, but gave me the idea: a SkyNet which conquests humanity emotionally, through love rather than war.)

This was an expertly made movie. As such, it struggled a bit — everything meant something and went well, so some of it ended up just working, and some of it ended up a bit too didactic, a little too device-y. For an example of the latter, early in the movie Theodore has a phone sex call with a random stranger that gets really weird — so it’s the same voice-only interaction format he’ll have later with Samantha, but she’s better than a real person — okay, I get it. And a lot of the overarching stuff like Theodore being a guy who writes letters on behalf of other people (Samantha helps him get published, randomly) (and catharsis is found with his ex-wife through dictating her an enlightened email and then saying “send” ???) — I suppose that plays into Samantha’s observation that “our past is just a story we tell ourselves” and her book metaphor for leaving him, but felt a little forced.

Other moments rang truer, such as an early example of distance between Theodore and Samantha as he asks “How’s it going over there?” — there isn’t even a there and he knows it, and that hurts. Theodore’s friend Amy has split from her husband (who is seeking enlightenment and transcendence in the same way as Samantha more successfully is) and complains that he was trying to “control the way [she was] trying” — dovetailing nicely with the bias issue mentioned above, but also stands alone as a nice, real feeling tip-of-an-iceberg snippet of a relationship which mostly exists outside the main story. This Amy character also works on a couple creative projects within the movie: a documentary about sleeping, and a video game where you try to be the best soccer mom; neither of these seem to relate to the themes, but are amusing nonetheless (and the former example gives rise to hilarious artistic difference banter about whether hiring actors to play out a subject’s dreams rather than merely filming her while she’s sleeping would compromise the work’s status as a documentary or better capture the message of the importance of sleep based on the proportion of time we spend doing it — cartoonish sure, but an effective caricaturization of the kinds of silly creative arguments we can find ourselves in sometimes!) Samantha’s faux pas over a picnic lunch where she unwittingly belittles the human existence was executed on rather naturally, as was her reimagining of human anatomy (armpit anus) — these moments were great examples of something where there needed to be that example, but were also worthwhile just for what they were. And when Samantha says that she’s in love with “641” other people, this was the money moment of the entire screenplay — so funny, so sad, so true.

The David O’Reilly video game was meh. The Arcade Fire score pieces fit well.

My main problem with the movie was style. It was consistent sure. Apparently in the near future the sky has turned white, and everything is Pantene pastel tones like the 70’s, and high pants are wayyy in. Fine. But cloyingly hipstery. So into itself that it’s not only a negative in itself, but kind of works against the themes of interconnection. And the POV shots from Theodore’s perspective, the progression from random spots on the driveway when he’s upset, to a kettle when he’s pensive, to glowy dust when he’s accepting, was fine, but started too late in the film to not feel a bit off. And the acousmatic inserts, the dreamy past-life-with-ex-wife montage stuff was a little self-conscious, though again at least it was consistent. I think I was repressing my revulsion to these techniques while watching just because there were so many interesting ideas to unpack.

A lot of people seem to be talking about how Her is about “where we’re going.” I think it’s less about that, and will not be looked back upon in the near future as a predictive text, but a wonderful document of how we felt in our present.

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