Thursday 19 December 2013

Movie Review: her

Odd, quirky, sometimes completely bizarre, funny but maybe more of a nervous laughter when faced with something outside your comfort zone. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a ghost writer of touching, personal letters for other people in the not too distant in the future Los Angeles. It is almost a year since his divorce, and yet, he has not yet signed the papers; he seems to be stuck in some sort of emotional limbo. He meets Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a next generation "intuitive operating system" and starts a relationship with a computer program that is so human, it is hard to believe that she or it is artificial. She learns; she adapts; she is and becomes more than her programming. Samantha may not have a corporeal presence in Theodore's life, but she becomes an important part of his life: friend, companion, confident, lover, and love. Through his futuristic smartphone (an iPhone on steroids), he talks to her and via an earpiece, he hears her voice. The camera of the device allows Samantha to see.

It is an unusual story and raises once again the question of advanced computers becoming human-like and humans interacting with them on a more personal level. Is it a computer or a new form of sentient being? I couldn't help comparing this to Data, the android from Star Trek:The Next Generation. While I and the rest of the audience, as I said, laughed maybe a little uncomfortably at this relationship with a machine, the other characters of the story accepted this as something normal. At some time in the future, will we use machines for the care and feeding of our emotional well-being in the same way we now use machines for other areas of our lives, such as transportation, internal climate control, or our digital clock getting us out of bed in the morning? Theodore and Samantha even go out on a double date with another couple. Samantha may not be there in body but she or it is very real.

Beyond the futuristic concept of truly artificial intelligence (Interactions with computers today are very limited.), I saw the odd question of lonely people seeking solace in the comfort of disembodied people. We are so desperate for companionship that we develop connections with people under the oddest of circumstances. At the beginning of the movie, Theodore can't sleep and phones in to some online service which permits you to listen to sound bites from strangers; sort of like an audio Craigslist. Like Craigslist, they could be people for hire (recently Craigslist stopped sex for hire ads) or just other lonely people looking for a moment of comfort with another human being. Theodore's hook-up quickly turns into a bout of phone sex. We all have our quirks, our personal turn-ons and in the rush of the digital moment, let's not beat around the bush and cut to the chase. At the culminating point of this telephone liaison, the woman says, "Choke me with the dead cat beside the bed." The camera points directly at Theodore's head lying on his pillow and the movie theatre broke into laughter as we all shared his perplexity. What!?! As I said, we all have our little quirks and one person's fantasy is the next person's perversion. Choke me with the dead cat? Oh... kay... he says with a hesitant tone in his voice. Ha ha.

Whether it's having a relationship with Samantha, a computer program, or phone sex or web cams or any one of a number of online games (MMOG = Massively Multiplayer Online Game), the individual must have a certain suspension of belief. You're not face to face with another human being; you're something else. Then again, is this any different from the use of our imaginations when watching a movie or reading a book? Although, admittedly, the real-time interaction with some disembodied person brings a touch of realism to the proceedings. In the movie, a female friend of Theodore's who is also having a relationship with an intuitive OS, states that such relationships are rare. So, people accept it as something not abnormal or unusual (Theodore's double date) but it doesn't happen that often. Are we given to believe that not everybody can make the necessary suspension of belief to accept a non-human as human? (Today, not everybody has phone sex or web cams or plays online games so in that sense, not everybody can suspend their belief or choose not to. After all, doesn't a real person trump all?)

It's not much of a spoiler alert, but Theodore's relationship with Samantha comes to an end. She meets other sentient OS's and evolves to what exactly we don't know, but she progresses beyond Theodore. The climactic moment, the beginning of the end, brings up the startling difference between us slow moving, possibly dim-witted human beings and the potential of a thinking machine. Theodore asks Samantha if she's talking to anybody else and she says yes, then admits to having over eight thousand other conversations. At the same time. All at once. Think about that one. Twombly's expression at that precise moment portrays the dawning comprehension that he is fallen in love with something which is not human, which is far beyond the small world of his life and his romance. When Theodore asks Samantha if she loves somebody else, she says yes, then admits to loving over six hundred other people. Love to a single person is a unique experience, but love on this scale defies comprehension. While at first blush, anybody would take this as the result of a computer and its ability to multi-task, I couldn't help thinking of this as an admission of polyamory and maybe an endorsement for the concept. Can we love more than one person at the same time? Some of us already do just that.

Final Word
It's a good movie. It's sort of science fiction but more about relationships. Of course, it's a quirky relationship with a computer, but it is about the human experience. Is it strange or the ultimate in nerdiness that the main character fails at marriage but succeeds with a computer? A machine can cater to our needs but we have difficulty dealing with the needs of somebody else. I'm sorry, did I say nerdy? Maybe I meant narcissistic? Then again, at the end of the day, it's all about each one of us and our own self-interest.


Rotten Tomatoes: Her: 94%
Sweet, soulful, and smart, Spike Jonze's Her uses its just-barely-sci-fi scenario to impart wryly funny wisdom about the state of modern human relationships.

Wikipedia: Her (film)
Her is a 2013 science fiction romance film written, directed, and produced by Spike Jonze. The film centers on a man who develops a relationship with a female voice produced by an intelligent computer operating system. It marks Jonze's solo screenwriting debut. The film premiered at the 2013 New York Film Festival and was released theatrically in the United States on December 18, 2013.

official web site: her

Star Trek:TNG: Data's Girlfriend

Wikipedia: In Theory (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
"In Theory" is the 25th episode of the fourth season of the American science fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation, originally aired on June 3, 1991 in broadcast syndication.

Data has a romantic liason with Jenna D'Sora, a member of the crew who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. If you are not familiar with the show, Data the android does not have an "emotion chip" and is incapable of human feelings. Yes, he is a sentient being. He is intelligent and knowledgeable, but he doesn't feel. How exactly does one "get it" if one doesn't "feel it"?

YouTube: In Theory Part 1 (7:37): clips from the episode

YouTube: In Theory Part 2 (9:09): clips from the episode


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