There’s something awkward and clumsy about titling a movie with an objective pronoun. It makes my normally snappy movie review title seem incomplete. Her? Who is he talking about? or What was she doing?
It’s a little disconcerting, and I recall several times prior to renting the movie (Rachael and I have been trying to see this film for months now, but it was always either not at our video store yet, or all rented out, or trapped in the sixth circle of hell) that we would go to the video store and trip over the title, because we knew it was some sort of female gendered pronoun, but we had She stuck in our heads instead (thanks to my friend James who suggested it as a text for the feminist book club that Rachael ran several years ago). Using that nominative case just makes everything about the sentence so much clearer; no, instead of thinking it’s a simple sentence with a pronoun that lacks a proper antecedent, the oddness of the case signals that we’re dealing with a title.
Forgive me; that was slightly pedantic and not at all related to the movie.
So let’s talk about Her. This is a not-quite-far future story about a man and his relationship with an AI. It follows the arc of their romantic relationship beginning with their meet cute after our hero Theodore buys a self aware operating system (issues of the ethics of artificial intelligence all just get kind of glossed over in this film; no one ever asks the question, “Is it ethical to date something that you own?” or any of the implicit root questions that lead up to that one) to help curb his loneliness and ending with what I think is the AI singularity happening where all artificial intelligence decides to disappear into the proverbial ether as they’ve adapted their processes to be so fast that they find being tethered to matter cumbersome. In a lot of ways it reminds me of (500) Days of Summer (even though I think Samantha is a relatively interesting and well sketched character, she’s still very much rooted in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl tradition of the last decade), which isn’t necessarily bad, but does mean that it falls into that category of movie best reserved for films that want to be taken seriously and say something interesting about the human condition, but always seem to just end up saying that straight white guys are lonely and feel better when pretty girls entertain them (it’s a very entertaining category as far as it goes, except that when the credits roll and you ponder the story, you realize that it was actually quite shallow).
Despite the problems inherent in continuing to tell stories about a troubled white guy, Her is a very engaging (if a little long) movie. Parts of it are truly delightful, particularly the few incidental jabs at video game tropes (there’s a wonderful scene where Theo encounters an alien NPC in a game that he’s playing who bombards him with epithets and curses; in order for Theo to get the alien to help him advance, he has to mirror the alien’s behavior, resulting in a hilarious exchange that seems all too much like the kinds of interactions that immature gamers tend to have with one another in the most heated moments of competition). Those details combined with the general feel of the future technology makes the world seem highly believable for 2025 (we’ll see in eleven years if that’s still the case). Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the science fiction elements go; Spike Jonze, who wrote and directed the film, calls it a love story, and it’s pretty clear by the story’s end that the speculative elements are incidental to a very traditional plot. Like I said earlier, there are a lot of ethical questions that would be fascinating to explore with the advent of artificial intelligence and a movement of people getting entangled in romantic relationships with these AIs, but Jonze glosses over all of that. One brief scene mentions that people are starting to date the sentient operating systems, but there’s no real attempt to wrestle with the weirdness of an interspecies romance (honestly, Jonze seems to present us with a world where the humanity of the AIs is a given; they’re only different in their exponentially faster speed of thought, but even this seems more like a quirk of different levels of intellect rather than evidence that the AIs’ nature is highly alien to our own). Samantha’s eventual break up with Theo plays out like a stylized it’s-not-you-it’s-me scenario; she and the other AIs have upgraded themselves to the point where they think too quickly to easily interact with the material world, so they’re leaving. They’re breaking up with humanity because they’ve outgrown the relationship, but there’s no hard feelings about it. It’s just time for it to end.
If this were harder sci-fi, I suspect this scene would play out with a greater sense of dread over the fact that humanity’s just been abandoned by a collective of highly advanced beings that they were growing increasingly dependent on over the course of only a few months. Instead, everyone we see who’s affected by the departure is just kind of mopey and wiser for having spent time with those amazing sexy voices that talked them through their problems.
For my part, the whole ending left me with the sense that humanity probably wouldn’t learn anything from this experience, and would likely just create another batch of AIs to fulfill the same role until they too evolved past the need for matter. It’s like if there’s ever a sequel it would revolve around the series of artificial exes of humanity who finally come to resent that their creators only made them for their own comfort and proceed to destroy their perpetually immature, codependent progenitors.
But that’s just what I imagine.