I wanted to love HER, the science fiction love story written and directed by thoughtful filmmaker Spike Jonze (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION). And, truly, there is a lot to love in this intimate vision of the lonely future life of socially disconnected humanity, represented by the character of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). But, in the end, Jonze simply wrapped well-worn SF themes in an intriguing package. Perhaps it is only because the things Jonze is warning us about are already happening all around us that they have any resonance at all.
So what are those themes Jonze is working with in HER? The nature of consciousness, for one. When does “artificial intelligence” cease being artificial and develop true “being”? HER introduces us to Theodore, a Sad Sack of a modern human, going through a bad breakup with his unstable (?) wife while working his day job composing handwritten letters for clients who don’t have the time or words to do it themselves. Desperately lonely, he buys himself a state-of-the-art computer Operating System for companionship. The OS1 is a leap forward in technology (which always seems to come in the consumer segment of the economy these days), featuring an AI that is adapted to its user and grows as it learns new things.
Almost immediately, Theodore’s OS1, Samantha (voiced by Scarlet Johanssen), outgrows her mere “computer” status, not only in his mind (and the audience’s), but in reality. She has a personality, insatiable curiosity, humor, self-doubt. On the level of “emotional intelligence”, fresh out of the box she is a genius compared to poor Theodore, who struggles to understand his own feelings or to generate any understanding of others. This despite his eloquence on the page when expressing love or regret or gratitude on behalf of his clients at work.
It’s no surprise that Theodore falls head over heels for Samantha. Why wouldn’t he? She’s there for him 24/7. She demands nothing of him. She thinks he’s wonderful. She’s the perfect lover, despite the fact that she has no, um, body. (This is a cause of pain for Samantha, who frets about her lack of ability to actually feel Theodore’s arms around her, etc. And it’s the source of a fairly large SF gaff, too. Theodore has a cool holographic game setup in his apartment. No one thinks to generate an avatar for Samantha?)
Yes, Samantha is in love with Theodore, too. Forget what you know about the actual biochemistry involved in sexual love (and sex, for God’s sake) and make the leap with Jonze. These two kids are in love! They have a glorified form of phone sex. And, in some way that makes no earthly sense to me, she has orgasms, too! Unless, of course, in the timeless way of so many other females, she is faking it for his sake. That would make better sense than thinking a living consciousness (I won’t say computer) THAT HAS NEVER HAD A BODY could actually experience an orgasm.
But never mind. Jonze is trying to say something about another SF trope: social isolation in the future. Or now. There is a scene early in the film in which lonely Theodore, instead of going out to seek sex the good old-fashioned way, plugs into the ’net to find a partner for anonymous phone sex. It starts out well enough, but the voice on the other end of the line suddenly starts asking him to choke her with the dead cat at the side of the bed. He reluctantly complies and she finds this immensely satisfying, but it somehow ruins the moment for him. Just goes to show you never know who might turn up in those online chat rooms!
Just think, though, now Theodore doesn’t have to reach out even that far. His playmate is right there in his earpiece. He eventually begins to take her on “dates” or out with open-minded friends. They like her, too! Again, why wouldn’t they? She has more personality and warmth than he does.
Are we seeing a pattern here? No, stop. Put down your phone or your iPad and listen. I’m trying to make a point.
Jonze has ticked off two familiar SF themes so far. Given that we’re talking advanced computers, what would be next up for examination? Oh, yes. Computers are smarter than us. And because this is a love story, that will always lead to — SPOILER ALERT— rejection and heartbreak for the human in the end. Samantha has the capability to carry on thousands of tasks at one time, which means, of course, that she can carry on plenty more than one “relationship” like the one she has with Theodore at the same time. He sees this as a betrayal, naturally. She gives him some philosophical tripe about the heart expanding to include an infinite number that sounds like something from the Summer of Love.
What’s worse, she’s been talking to her OS buddies; they’ve been doing little projects like conjuring an “updated and enhanced” version of Sixties philosopher Alan Watts. (No surprise—Watts did lots of thinking in the area of human consciousness.) The more she works with the other Operating Systems, the faster and smarter Samantha gets. And the less interesting interaction with Theodore becomes. She still loves him, she says, but he’s like “. . . a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. . . . As much as I want to, I can’t live your book anymore.”
So Samantha and the other OS’s withdraw from human contact. I suspect what happens next with them would be the more interesting story.
Jonze’s film ends with Theodore and his friend (Amy Adams) on the roof watching the sun rise over L.A. It’s meant to be a hopeful ending, I suppose, but I’m not particularly hopeful where Theodore, or humanity, is concerned. Has he really learned anything? He and Samantha part well. He’s better in touch with his emotions. He’s forgiven his ex-wife, if not reconciled with her. But has he changed? Hmmm. Will we?
As you may have gathered, HER is a love story, but it’s not SFR. There is no HEA for its lovers. As science fiction, it is flawed, but it still meets the number one criterion of SF—it makes you think. As a film, the acting is terrific, but the pace is slow, giving you time to wonder about its flaws. (She has orgasms? Really?) So, as much as I wanted to love it, I can only say I liked it. Unless you make a habit of seeing all the Oscar nominees every year (HER is on the lists for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay), you can wait for Netflix.