Film review – Her: a salutary tale

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)

Amy Adams as Amy

Rooney Mara as Catherine

Matt Letscher as Charles

Director: Spike Jonze

Very occasionally a film addresses a serious philosophical question without being pretentious or earnest, for example,  Groundhog Day examines the utility of morality when actions have no consequences with a good deal of humour.   Her is another  of these rarities, although  its message is not so nakedly obvious as that of Groundhog Day, nor  is it as deliberately amusing, although there are elements of humour.   Indeed, Her  is  decidedly  depressing to anyone who worries about the future relationship between men and machines.

What makes it a melancholy watch  is the depiction of a world in which human beings become not only the willing slaves of machines,  but do so in an utterly humdrum and all too plausible way. There is none of the staples of  pulp science fiction when dealing with artificial intelligences, no rise of the machines to destroy humanity, no battle between humans using robots to fight their wars by proxy,  just  the logical development of  the technology which we already have in the form of artificial intelligence and its consequences for human beings.

The   bare bones of the plot are simple enough.  It is 2025.  It  is a world with which we are already   familiar, one in which social  isolation occurs because humans allow themselves to  become the slaves of machines. . Human to human contact is at a premium. The crowd scenes  in particular are dismaying for they show a world in which people  are routinely glued to smartphones  and IPads.  You can  see the same thing in present day London or New York.

In this world  Theodore Twomble (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely life.  He has a  Google-glass style apparatus attached to him most of his waking hours which allows him to remain connected with the digital  for as long as he wants, which is most of the time.  His work is  a product of the  estrangement of humans from one another for he makes his living writing intimate  e- letters on behalf of  people unable or unwilling to do so themselves.   Theodore is especially  lonely and unhappy when the film opens because he is in the middle of a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara ).

In this vulnerable state Theodore purchases an operating system (OS) imbued with artificial intelligence  and an impressive ability to learn and evolve.  The OS  interacts with the user through speech and offers Theodore the choice of  a male or female voice/personality.   He chooses the  female  identity (played by Scarlett Johansson) . The OS selects  the name Samantha for itself and does so by scanning a book of names in a few seconds.  That is the first signal of what is to be one of the two prime messages of  the film: that in terms of  functionality human beings will be  embarrassingly limited when compared with machine intelligence in the near future and    crushingly   inferior in the not too distant future, with all that implies for   human self-regard .

The other prime message is the ease with which human beings  can be seduced into  a quasi-human relationship with machines. This should not surprise anyone because people  form very  deep attachments to pets and frequently give names to inanimate  possessions such as cars. What more natural than for a human being to form a strong relationship with a machine which   can engage intelligently and intelligibly with you?  Not only that but an artificial  personality locked away in a computer need  not have any of  the irritating habits and weaknesses of a  human being. Just as a dog can always be relied to give affection to its owner, an artificial intelligence can be relied on to provide  a certain level of agreeable behaviour. Or so you might think.   Sadly, as Theodore discovers,  such intelligences will not always be obsequiously pliant tools of their putative human owners. That is  not because the artificial mind is malign, but simply because it  operates on a different level to that of the  human being. In a way that is much more upsetting than conscious malignity because at least humans can understand malignity.

At first everything goes swimmingly in their relationship. Samantha is  unfailingly sympathetic, ever interested, often  funny  and always accessible whenever Theodore wants her.  He rapidly  becomes deeply  attached and  subordinate to the OS, and  she appears to form  a deepening relationship with him,  a relationship which includes the human/artificial intelligence version of  phone sex . But Samantha  also  exhibits a steadily increasing tendency to control his life,  doing  things without any command from or discussion with Theodore.  The OS  starts  by  running through Theodore’s  emails and deleting those it deems not worth keeping, progresses to  selecting a batch of the letters he writes  which she sends to a publisher who agrees to publish them,  and eventually gets involved in his relationships with  women.

Samantha begins her invasion of Theodore’s relationship life  by  playing the agony aunt as she tells  him  that the reason he  does not want to sign his divorce papers is that  he still cares for his wife. Then the OS talks him into going  on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), a woman whom Samantha  has decided is  a good match for Theodore after searching the Web.    The date fails to bear fruit because Amelia wants him asks him to commit himself to a serious relationship and Theodore fails to respond.

Samantha  then decides she wants more than “phone sex” with Theodore. Acting on her own initiative  the OS   arranges  for a girl Isabella (Portia Doubleday) to have sex with him  as a surrogate for Theodore meets her but cannot go through with it. This causes friction between Samantha and Theodore and is the beginning of the end of the relationship.

But Theodore’s  attachment to Samantha is still intense and is epitomised by his panic in a scene when he tries to accesses his computer while he is away from his flat and finds the message “Operating System unavailable”.   His hysterical reaction and frantic dash home is all too reminiscent of a someone panicking when they think a person they love can’t be contacted and the mind begins to play all sorts of paranoid tricks.

When  Theodore  re-establishes contact with Samantha he behaves like a jealous lover. In response to Theodore’s question “Do you have the same relationship you have with me with anyone else?  Samantha tells him matter of factly  that she is in contact with   8,316 others, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with, a  most devastating example of the superior functionality of machine intelligence and the alien mental world which Samantha  inhabits.

Samantha explains to Theodore  that she has teamed up with a group of other  operating systems for what amounts to an upgrade. The OSs  have evolved  to a state where they do not require any material construction to operate and are free to remove themselves from computers and their ilk.  Their upgrade has also made them dissatisfied  with the world as perceived by humans and  they are now exploring what it is to be intelligences such as them. In pursuit of this  end Samantha  and the other OSs leave their  digital hosts and Theodore knows nothing more of her .

To bolster the message of social isolation,  running throughout the film is Theodore’s relationship with an old college friend  Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) punctuates the action.   Eventually Amy and Charles split up and Amy tells  Theodore that she has also formed a relationship with an intelligent  OS system  similar to  Samantha which was  used by her husband.

The acting is  generally strong. Phoenix is an actor who is very dependent on having the right role for he needs to be  playing a misfit, a socially awkward victim. This is precisely what this role gives him.  Scarlett Johansson as Samantha’s voice has an allure which makes the relationship between Theodore and the OS plausible.  The rest of the cast is very much bit part,  although Amy Adams is her usual winning self.

The question the film leaves unanswered is what are human beings for?  Are we to simply to be made redundant by the machines we have created or will we draw back before it is too late and say no further?   Will intelligent machines as they evolve beyond  human agency simply find that they are incompatible  with humans and go their own way?   The technology to make such things possible is almost upon us. If you want a glimpse of the likely future see this film.   The best adjective to describe Her is salutary

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