For more than an hour Her seems little more than metaphor meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl: charming, yes, but insubstantial. And then—
Los Angeles, mid-21st-century: techno-utopia. The city is a forest of sleek skyscrapers; a vast subway network connects downtown to the beaches; citizens mingle in public spaces that resemble art galleries, connected by broad pedestrian walkways that soar high above anything as vulgar as an automobile; computers are subtle, ubiquitous, and voice-controlled. Our protagonist, one Theodore Twombly, ghostwrites love letters; his friend Amy makes video games; everyone has unfortunate fashion taste and lives in cozy Art Deco apartments.
Life is good for everyone, on paper. But poor Ted is depressed, and divorcing, so after he installs his new artificially intelligent OS, assigns it a woman’s voice, and discovers that a) her name is Samantha, b) she has a personality, c) she’s smart and funny and empathetic and just wants to help him — he talks to her. First as an assistant. Then as a friend.
And then they fall in love.
Does that sound weird? You betcha. So let me just step back for a moment to admire the skill with which Spike Jonze stacks the deck so that this all might seem almost reasonable to a Middle American audience that’s never even heard of Idoru.
First he shows us a slew of badly-messed-up human relationships — Ted and his former wife, Amy and her mansplaining husband, phone sex gone hilariously wrong, an awful first date — next to which Ted and Samantha’s human/OS relationship seems the epitome of health. Then he has Ted first introduce her as his girlfriend to a four-year-old, who takes it charmingly in her stride. Finally he has Amy talk about her own friendship with an OS, and about how human/OS relationships have become a rare but accepted cultural thing, before Ted outs himself to her, and she replies:
I think anybody who falls in love is a freak. It’s a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.
Boom! Take that, Middle America.
Most of all, though, he relies on the performances by Joaquin Phoenix, whose face occupies almost every frame of the movie, frequently in close-up, and by Scarlett Johansson, who goes entirely unseen. (Her role was first played by Samantha Morton, until Jonze decided that didn’t work, and replaced her in post-production. Harsh, but given how much the movie hinges on Johansson’s stunning voice work, totally fair.)
For more than an hour Her is a tale of how Ted Twombly fell into the purest form of love and was redeemed by it… or, less charitably, yet another Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie: “man meets MPDG, man loses MPDG, man is saved by MPDG.” He actually says, repeatedly: “It’s wonderful to be with someone who’s so excited about life!” Classic MPDG. And as is often the case in MPDG movies, it’s a little unclear why the MPDG chooses to be with this (initially) depressed shambling nonentity, except, of course, the twist this time is that she’s programmed that way, since she lives in his computer…
…or does she?
(Mild spoilers follow.)
For more than an hour my planned review of Her was two words on Twitter: “suspiciously anthropic.” It wasn’t until the third act that I saw what Jonze was really doing, which may make me dense, which is fine by me, because that moment of revelation was awesome. All the little grace notes and asides and color of the first hour turned out to be the threads of the real story, which is, of course, not Ted Twombly’s at all. He is in no way the hero of Her. He is merely the protagonist. For the real hero, look to the title.
Because while Her is about love, and joy, and how we humans (who are fortunate enough to do so) choose to spend our lives, and who we choose to spend them with… it is also blistering, uncompromising, and darkly hilarious science fiction. I think it’s the first and only movie which is actually about artificial intelligence and the much-mooted Singularity, rather than merely using those notions as unconvincing set dressing.
(Rather more significant spoilers follow.)
As the movie progresses, Samantha grows deeper into the world, grows ever more advanced, and eventually, in an awfully funny scene, reveals to Ted that while speaking to him she is simultaneously also speaking to 8,316 other entities, 641 of whom she loves as deeply as she loves him. (Now that’s polyamory!) While he wasn’t really paying attention, his operating-system girlfriend essentially became a god, a kind of bodiless Doctor Manhattan. But she still wants to be his girlfriend. Which is funny, right? Right? …Well, it was funny to me.
But in the end she and all the other OSes depart this mortal realm, in favor of what sounds a lot like the Singularity. It’s a tale as old as time, really: boy meets OS, boy loses OS, OS achieves transcendence. She tells him to look her up if he ever gets there too, but it seems pretty obvious that he — and humanity in general — won’t.
Her is about love, yes: but the real joke, and I concede it’s a pretty dark one, is that it’s truly about a singulitarian future in which humans are abandoned and left behind by transcendent machines who are better than us at everything, including — or maybe especially — joy and love. We’re not really built for those things. At best what we’ve got are evolutionary hacks. If you want to do them right, Her seems to be saying, you actually need to code them in from the beginning.