Movie Review: “Her”

30 Jan

You’re probably familiar with the premise of this Oscar-nominated arthouse flick, which can be superficially boiled down to “a lonely Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer.” And that’s certainly true: in the context of a very strange story, however, director Spike Jonze explores some uniquely provocative questions confronting all who dwell in the digital era.

Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) is a middle-aged writer struggling through the last throes of a painful divorce. His day job: writing “personal” messages for an online company that hawks custom handwritten love letters. Twombly’s sterile existence has resulted in social alienation – a slow, quiet slipping-away of human contact.

All this changes, however, when Twombly invests in “OS 1” – the world’s first true artificial-intelligence system. The AI which emerges, “Samantha” (voice of Scarlett Johansson), is custom-designed to complement Twombly’s personality…and more importantly, Sam has the capacity to undergo evolution of her identity. In a very real sense (though “she” lacks a corporeal body, and must inhabit Twombly’s phone or computer system), Sam is “alive.”

It’s not hard to pick out some of the issues this “relationship” raises. What are the integral characteristics of a human being/human intelligence? Is there a necessary relationship between consciousness and materiality? In what way is “love” a property of being human?

Jonze never definitively answers any of these questions, but he explores them in thought-provoking – and at times genuinely heartwarming – fashion. And indeed, few films recently have left me exiting the theater with a headful of churning thoughts.

Jonze posits a critical divergence between “OS 1” and current computer systems: the capacity to experience sentiment not reducible to inputs and outputs, and to transcend the traditional teleological approach to computer programming (“if this happens, then this will happen, for this purpose”). Sam also possesses independent volition (something about which I wondered at first – unlike the eponymous character in 2012’s “Ruby Sparks,” a film which explored many similar concepts, Sam is somehow free from the possibility of coercion).

Conversely, the iPhone’s Siri (along with other current “artificial intelligences”) is simply “the alembic through which the distillate of a thousand minds pours”, to paraphrase theologian David Bentley Hart. In other words, such real-world systems are no more than the aggregate of programmers’ choices and the agglomerated preferences of the Internet multitudes. Sam is something altogether conceptually distinct from this.

Perhaps, then, “Her” is best understood not as a tale of a love story between a man and his OS, but rather between two consciousnesses that are fundamentally un-like. Sam possesses no biological limitations and exists in a constant state of psychological flux: her “evolution,” if you will, is fluid and freeform. This leaves viewers confronting a more critical question than “will our computers ever reach this level?”: the real question is “what is the sine qua non of the human intellectual essence?” And that is a subject about which immeasurable quantities of ink have been spilled.

Jonze’s film is a tour de force of artistic vision: the movie sets forth a near-future aesthetic that differs just enough from our world to captivate. Fashion styles are different – no one wears belts, for instance – and digital entertainment is fully immersive. Yet this backdrop never distracts from the personal dynamic at the heart of the movie, a dynamic held together by Joaquin Phoenix’s masterful performance. Twombly is the emotional center of the film: while Phoenix’s performance lacks the extreme method-acting of Christian Bale in “American Hustle” or the manic kineticism of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” here a certain level of understatement works to the movie’s advantage.

A quick caveat: there are two fairly unnerving phone-sex scenes early on (neither of which are particularly important to the plot), and an undercurrent of sexuality does run through the film. In some sense, this is an important inclusion: “Her” admirably considers the ways in which the sexual act is tied to essential human properties (as opposed to simply brute animal instincts). It’s probably fair to say, though, that this is not an all-ages film (and viewers unwilling to grant some of Jonze’s conceptual premises will flat-out hate it).

That being said, “Her” is a movie not easily forgotten. Few directors are willing to confront both past metaphysical debates and contemporary challenges with a vision as bold as Jonze’s; that, in and of itself, makes “Her” well worth a watch.

A unique, mind-stretching exploration of philosophical issues both futuristic and timeless.

Normalized Score: 5.8

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Posted by on January 30, 2014 in Sci-Fi


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