Saturday, January 18, 2014

Love: Her

Like the buzz surrounding Inside Llewyn Davis, the critical praise on Her may have ballooned audience expectations to a point the film itself cannot sustain. Where outlandish crime epics like The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle are big enough and loud enough to dismiss naysayers with a shrug and a middle finger, Her is a small, precious object.  For lack of a better analogy, watching Her in a crowded multiplex was a bit like watching someone read pages from a favorite book aloud and, once it ends, finding yourself hyper-aware of the way your reactions are different from (or, occasionally, in tune with) the people around you.  It's the kind of movie that makes you feel protective... if you like it. From my vantage, Her was something as beautiful and emotionally rich as it was terrifying.  The further the film dared to go, the more impressed I was with its construction, and the less I knew precisely where it would opt to end. When the conclusion arrived, I was shocked that no one around me seemed to have the same emotional experience.  When my friends discussed Her over dinner, I can't say I understood where they were coming from at all.  I was surprised by the level of their disdain, and by the way they were so thoroughly unconvinced by what I’d found utterly believable.  But maybe I shouldn't have been surprised.  This distinct polarity is one I've seen mirrored in Twitter conversations and in the comments on other blogs: some people think the film is brilliant, others think it's this boring, clunky "love story" made pretentious by this weird public perception of its Spike Jonzeness.  

I recognize that Her is the type of movie that invites a strong emotional response, positive or negative.  While I’d argue it’s exquisitely crafted, top to bottom, there seems to be no point  in trying to sway you, dear reader, towards one opinion or the other. All I can really do is tell you why I loved it (sincerely). 
Her is not a love story in the conventional sense.  It pretends to be one, it may even call itself one, and there are moments where we are meant to mistake the depth of feeling between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as something that could be described as love.  Theodore certainly believes that what he feels is love.  For Theodore, the relationship he shares with his operating system (for that's what Samantha is) is something that he actively defines as a romantic entanglement.  When he becomes comfortable with the concept, he freely tells people that he's dating his OS.  He describes the relationship they're having, he goes on double dates, and he speaks of her as if she possesses a personality far beyond her programming.  The fact, though, is that she both does and does not; that Samantha is always illusion, that what she refers to as emotions are programmed responses, that her intelligence may grow, but that she was designed to do so.  Samantha is a disembodied voice, a reflection of Theodore's self who is (whether he recognizes it or not) initially launched as a direct response to his personality preferences.  The film makes a point of reminding us of this repeatedly, often via real human women who cite Theodore's shortcomings as an inability to deal with complicated human emotions and empathize appropriately.  His soon-to-be ex-wife (Rooney Mara) chides him for his failure in this regard, and a one-time date (Olivia Wilde) refers to him as 'creepy' after he shuts down in the face of her own emotional vulnerability.  So, Her is more of a self-love story: a tale of projected narcissism, of disrupted human communication, and of the way technology paradoxically allows us to turn further inward even as we are so constantly, vitally connected.       
The subject matter is one that has interested me in my own writing. I'm always a little afraid of the internet, of networks, of over-attachment, of becoming too comfortable staying in and reaching out instead of directly interacting.  There's something more than a little sinister about the direction personalization is headed in digital modes, but there's perhaps something equally creepy about the way we as individuals have adjusted our lives to accommodate these alterations.  We're a surveillance society. We know that something about receiving 'likes' and 'retweets' registers in our brains as validation, we know, too, that many people fret about what it is they choose to share with their network of friends and followers.  We seem to want to be able to make flippant observations and gestures and have someone out there grant their approval, and Her is essentially about that at a deeper level.  Jonze understands that we are already in relationships with our various devices, that many of us have our jobs, friendships, romances, and life's work tied up in bits of memory on clouds and hard drives. What Her manages to do is amplify the human-mechanical bond without losing a sense of our own humanity.   It's a fable, it's a romance turned inward, and it subverts the version of a self-created apocalypse we've become accustomed to seeing. The rise of artificial intelligence often comes attached to far more dire circumstances. It's a disconnection depicted via a special effects meltdown of wires, explosions, guns, and off-planet escape pods; often with more than a touch of fear mongering.  Her is science-fiction, but plausible, gentle science fiction.  It recasts the all-seeing, invasive computer as a pleasant, conversant companion who validates us before we can even reach outward.  Samantha becomes Theodore's world to the point that having to reach out isn't really necessary.    
Approached from this angle, Her is frightening, sure, but also quite sad.  Under Jonze, the things that are terrifying about the world Theodore inhabits possess a beautiful melancholy.  Part of this is derived from the retro-futurism of the film's design elements.  The Los Angeles of Her is a future less Blade Runner than sun-faded Instagram.  The Shanghai skyline has been blended into the city to add a touch of something science fiction, but it's empty, light, faded in shades pulled from 60s and 70s interior design swatches instead of dark and oppressive.  The city's population is outfitted in soft, hipster-ugly clothes that blend dated elements with odd modifications, and we get the sense that this is a world that seeks comfort in the past.  Or, more specifically, this is a world that needs to be comforted and for whom the term luxury may signify the ability to indulge and find solace in simpler times.  Theodore lives in a world that looks like the Apple store had a baby with a Pinterest board.  The comfort is false, but Theodore (and others) surround themselves with the accouterments of human connection and interaction like avid collectors. We meet Theodore as he tells his basic OS to play him a melancholy song, we see that he works for a company that crafts handwritten, meaningful personal letters for other people.  Jonze establishes, immediately, a strange, darkly comic tone for this society: they are all searching for a connection that does not involve human interaction. They want the sense of it without the burden of its upkeep.  When Samantha enters the story, she is the ultimate version of this unspoken desire, but the relationship that they strike up feels real by comparison.

This is where the true brilliance of Her lies. It's a smart movie that twists science fiction towards a very twee sort of realism, yes, but what it gets really right is a sort of fragility of human emotions.  The further Samantha and Theodore connect, the more surreal the film becomes and the more we may want Samantha to somehow manifest as "real."  The fact that she isn't and can never be, though, works all the more strongly to forward the film's central thesis.  In creating a world where characters seem to want to detach and avoid human interaction, the necessity of connection is written all the more clearly.  What Theodore desires in devoting himself to Samantha is a  companionship that cannot, ultimately, be satisfied via technology ---however advanced it may appear. It's that understanding that makes the film so heartbreaking and so, so good.  It's not that they can't connect, it's the envisioning of a world in which Theodore (and those around him) would ever not want to. 

5 comments:

  1. I just saw this movie last night! I absolutely loved it and agree with your ideas on the film. So beautiful and emotional!

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    1. Aw, thanks! It's lovely, I think. Glad to hear you thought so too.

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  2. I liked this film very much, but I get the feeling I didn't fully comprehend it. That said, it's a lovely movie, and I adored Joaquin Phoenix in this. I couldn't agree more with what you wrote: I started to believe their love affair and *wanted* Samantha to be real, and that's what saddened me the most.

    So even though I haven't fully understood them, I really do love and find the deeper subjects in HER very interesting and important, which you developed so beautifully in your review. It's definitely a movie to digest slowly, so I'll make sure I revisit it in the future.

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    1. Glad you liked it, too. The weird thing about this movie is that it's so simple, yet the ideas behind it just grow and grow and become more and more complex the more you think about them. There are so many implications that the film does such a good job drawing attention to, but not judging or moralizing outright. It never feels like it's preaching anything, but instead counts on the viewer to read between the lines of an otherwise beautiful movie.

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  3. Nice final paragraph (and review overall too!). It's a bit depressing to think about it in too much detail, but it explains human beings so well. Great film.

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