dir: Spike Jonze
That poster, with Joaquin Phoenix and his moustache, staring out at us, we who are looking at his poster. The ‘us’ I’m guessing is predominately expected to be women, as we gaze into his plaintive, soulful eyes, and we’re expected to ignore the fact that his moustache is terrible and it’s no longer Movember, thus there’s no excuses any more.
But there’s even more going on in that poster. His eyes aren’t just plaintive, suggesting longing and the capacity for deep emotion; he’s imploring us, he’s pleading with us not just to watch the film, but to accept what it is that the pervert’s moustache is hiding.
That he is about to, or get into, a pretty weird relationship. Don’t judge me, just love me, he seems to be pleading. Because it could have happened to you too.
Her is, perversely, one of the most sweetly romantic and beautiful films that I’ve watched all year, or at least from last year. It’s the sweetest film I’ve seen this year, but this year is only a handful of days old, so that’s not saying much. Like all of Spike Jonze's films, all of which I've loved beyond rationality, there's some fundamental oddness at play, but there's enough focus placed on the crafting of the themes and the various scenes, and the performances especially that combine to render the parts a workable "whole".
And I do love this film too, at least thus far. It's sat with me for days, maybe weeks by now, and I'm still strongly disposed towards it, and the ideas that it raised.
It's also, of Jonze's films thus far, the only one that needs a specific timeframe for its central conceit to work. It's set slightly in the future, but not obviously so, in that there aren't hovercars and transporters and aliens everywhere. The most obvious clues to its futureness are the way men are wearing high pants pulled up so high they look like old Maltese men, but the reason why it has to be the future is that they're doing this unironically. They're doing it because that's how guys are dressing, at least in this futuristic LA.
Also, this futuristic LA has a public transport train system, and subway, and looks suspiciously like Shanghai's trains, so it's got to not only be the future, but some alternate reality future as well.
All this is different degrees of window dressing: the real reason it has to be in the future is because it has to allow for a setting where the creation of an Artificial Intelligence complicated enough for someone to fall in love with is plausible.
Not only that, but technology has to advance sufficiently enough for an AI to have the smoky, husky voice of Scarlett Johansson.
Technology is mostly unseen in this flick, but it is utterly crucial to it. The reason it is crucial is not because of how it looks, or what visuals it creates for the film, but for allowing an exploration of what we are doing to ourselves and each other because of it. It's the impact of technology on us, and not the technology itself for its own sake, that is the crucial element.
As the film starts, Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) is talking, telling someone about how special they are, how loved, and how special an upcoming occasion is. We then realise he's not talking to a person, he's dictating to a computer. We then further realise that he's not talking on his own behalf, for himself, but he's effectively writing a letter for another person. He works for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. His job is to eloquently fake the emotions other people either can't summon up themselves or can't be bothered doing.
And he's so good at it. To do it, though, in some instances, he's been 'writing' these letters for people to particular other people for years. He's known one particular subject since he was a child, and has been writing on the parent's behalf for nearly a decade. In such time, he's been given enough information about such a person that he could almost be said to know that person, at least well enough to fake the sincerity of his heartfelt letters to them.
Authentic inauthenticity. Heartfelt faked emotion.
You could make allowances for a world where people are so busy they can't write to their loved ones, and would outsource the work, but what does it say about us that we, in the world posited in this film, want to outsource the emotion as well? Too much hard work to feel? Too much hard work to fake to feel? Why not hire Theo to fake-feel for you?
Theo is a sweet guy, a lovable and human guy even amidst all of this kookiness. He has to be for the flick to work at all. He's kind of drippy and mopey, but he has every reason to be. He's drawn to his melancholy playlist on his music player because, we gather, he's sad about his wife (Rooney Mara) leaving him. We see some of these scenes glowing with almost sepia tones, light bloom effects suffusing the images. We see two sets of images: at first the happy, puppies-in-love montages over gooey music (not to take away from the lovely soundtrack, which sounded very Arcade Fire-y, because it's by Arcade Fire).
So he's sad, but there's a reason. That sadness lets him tap into his capacity for emotion for his job, but doesn't incline him towards feeling those emotions towards other actual people.
So when OS 1 comes along, he, like most of humanity, is perfectly primed for the experience. OS stands for Operating System, you luddite, and it's the OS that's going to change the world. Well, it's going to change the world for those kinds of people who check their phones every few seconds for new emails, texts, updates etc, which, the film contends, is nearly all of us.
This is a new kind of OS. It's totally customisable, and talks to you like it's a person. It talks to Theo like it's actually Scarlett Johansson on the other end of the phone, something mopey shut-ins usually could only dream of.
Really, what most of the film then comes down to, and I know that this is going to make the film seem extraordinarily dull, is conversations between Theo and a disembodied voice.
In most flicks, the moment technology, a computer, or some robot become self-aware, they immediately go off on a kill crazy rampage and try to destroy all humans. Thankfully, in this hellish Brave New World, an Artificial Intelligence achieves self-awareness, falls in love with you, makes you fall in love with it, and then breaks your heart, which is not as devastating as Skynet achieving sentience and unleashing a nuclear war upon humanity 1 second after becoming self-aware in the Terminator movies.
That's a joke. Nothing's worse that a broken heart.
When Theo first turns the new system on, he selects the voice, 'she' selects her name, and their relationship begins right there. She, Samantha, does all the organising stuff you'd expect of his desktop and such, but starts reshaping his life in ways advertisements usually tout but never actually deliver on. She's aware enough, or her programming is complicated enough, for her responses to seem genuine, to seem real, just like his letters written on behalf of people seem to be real, and even handwritten, despite being dictated to and printed by computer.
She even has little breathy huffs and pauses, and phatic speech ('phatic' being the non-meaningful fluff that intersperses the stuff we're actually trying to say when we talk, like the "Like, huh, you know, and stuff and um, what the... I dunno, whatever, I mean really?" crap that litters our speech. Her programming is so complex that she's essentially, at least at first, moulding herself to be exactly what Theo wants her to be, in order to maximise his consumer experience, I would have thought.
The company that came up with these new OSes doesn't play any part in the movie, which is a shame, because when certain stuff starts to happen later in the flick, I would have loved to have seen some scenes at the Microsoft-Apple headquarters where the people in charge of the project start freaking out because their product has gone so spectacularly awry. And I can also chuckle at imagined scenes of the company's customer complaints help desks as customers start getting screwed over by their OSes.
Because of course people are going to fixate on these 'perfect' companions. The fact that the Samantha AI is actually self-aware is irrelevant, I think, except at the end, because what the flick is pointing more towards is about contemporary people and their capacity for losing themselves in this technological nirvana that only ever simulates emotional experiences, to the exclusion of real ones.
When Theo gets the chance to go on a date with an actual human girl (Olivia Wilde), it starts off all right, but then it's too icky, corporeal, complicated compared to what he has with Samantha. I mean, Samantha has to be there for him at the flick of a button instantly, and has no needs of her own other than making Theo feel great about himself on an ongoing basis. Plus, the sex is great every time.
She is, in fact, the perfect girlfriend for him. As he falls more and more deeply into whatever it is he's falling into, we start seeing all the people around him, either on public transport or walking on the street, engaged in similar heartfelt, engaging, deep conversations, but because of the ironic glaze over everything, we realise they're involved with their OSes as well.
We come to understand more and more that Theo is sweet and cleverly creative, but emotionally immature, but even then I never doubted that the feelings he feels for Samantha are real.
It's bizarre to say this, but for me, out of all of last year, this 'relationship' is one of the sweetest and most romantic that I saw all of last year. I 'believed' in Theo and Samantha more than I believed in anyone else, even Jesse and Celine from Before Midnight.
The yearning, the joy at feeling like you've met someone who completely and utterly gets you, the neediness, the possessiveness, the shifting of power over the course of the relationship, the demoralising revelation that the nature of the relationship as it was believed to be versus the reality of two fundamentally unsuitable beings having to separate, all of that felt so real and almost palpable to me.
Yet it didn't really move me on a visceral level. I didn't cry for Theo and Samantha, but it didn't really bother me. The intricacy of the world created in the film, and what it's trying to say about how distanced we're becoming from our own emotions even as we find more elaborate and eloquent ways to articulate those emotions in the social sphere.
I found it all to be so incredibly brilliant, on almost every level that I could want a film to be, and I just found it bracing in its intelligence and strange sweetness. The ending, which I couldn't possibly predict, managed to satisfy on almost every level. Spike Jonze has made four films, and I've loved every single one of them, and this, despite being completely different from everything he's done before, is just as strange and wonderful as the others.
I loved this film, though, in the interests of balance, let me point out that my partner, who saw it with me, didn't like it at all. At All. She never bought the premise, and could never really accept that people could be so desperate or so stupid as to fall in 'love' with their Siri just because the flick said so. It was a bridge too far that overwhelmed any of the other aspects, though she didn't find it horrible, just not that good, and not engaging.
Fair enough. There's more for me to love.
9 times I could probably have done without the dead cat bit, though, out of 10
“The past is just a story we tell ourselves” - Her