If we view film as a reflection of the society in which it is produced, then 2013 has been dominated by a few themes -- the African-American experience (12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Fruitvale Station) and the general distrust in American institutions, much of which is a product of the financial crisis of a half-decade ago (The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Out of the Furnace, even blockbuster films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Elysium). Enter Spike Jonze's Her, a simple love story with one rather large twist. Jonze's protagonist Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls head over heels for his operating system Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Next to meditations on race and the police state and income inequality, this premise might seem silly, cute, maybe even twee. In actuality, it's the most bold and ballsy great film of the year -- a completely different but no less important portrait of an emerging cultural phenomenon, the integration of technology in to every single corner of our lives.
Jonze seems to understand better than most how computers in every form have seeped seamlessly in to everything that we do. Her is set in the not-too-distant future. That's clear from the more built-up Los Angeles skyline, the video game Phoenix plays in the middle of his living room rather than on a screen or device and the apparent non-ironic popularity of mustaches and high-waisted pants.
But "not-too-distant" in this case might as well be tomorrow. That's the pace of technological advancement in the Information Age. One day, it seems ridiculous that a man could fall in love with an operating system (or stream high-definition TV shows or video chat with someone in another country), the next day Operating System 1 is there; Samantha, with access to and the ability to process more personal information than any human being on Earth, is able to connect with Theodore in a deeply personal manner.
Recently separated from his wife, played by Rooney Mara, and with a divorce impending, Phoenix's character is desperate for what Samantha can offer, an impossibly intimate relationship that spares him from the loneliness that surrounds him most of the time. As unnatural as it seems when you try to explain it, it's a relationship that blossoms organically on screen.
Phoenix's Theodore isn't some weird loner looking for a pervy, one-sided relationship with a pleasure bot. It's important to point out that he has friends, among them a neighbor played by Amy Adams and the secretary in his office played by Chris Pratt. He's just an ordinary guy who is lonely in an ordinary way and who happens to buy the latest gadget out there. This gadget just happens to be sentient -- able to make him laugh and laugh at his jokes and eventually even to have a sexual relationship with him that is built not out of subservience but out of mutual caring. It'd all feel ridiculous -- especially the multiple sex scenes -- if it all weren't so within our grasp. In a world with Siri and supercomputers that can learn from experience, it's not really that far-fetched, is it?
Establishing a believable romance between a man and a machine is quite the trick from writer-director Jonze. Doing so with minimal judgment and plenty of nuance, sans the Luddite hysteria that courses through The Social Network or the dystopian paranoia of innumerable pieces of science fiction is what makes his film remarkable.
The ubiquity of technology is neither good nor bad. It just is.
It is able to heal the emotional scars of Theodore's divorce and give him companionship where a handful of friends will not completely suffice. But it also enables his coldness and emotional distance, helping to wall him off from a new human love interest played by Olivia Wilde and perhaps even his soon-to-be ex-wife, as is implied in a tense lunch conversation in which Theodore finally signs divorce papers.
There's an appreciation for both the possibilities and the pitfalls of technology, artificial intelligence, Big Data, etc. that runs deep in Her. There's boundless potential in it. The world has shrunk. Connection across great space is routine. Paradoxically, loneliness and isolation seems to be more prevalent and more acute than ever. The sheer volume of information thrown at us is difficult to fully process; black and white cede ground to the complexity of gray at an exponential rate.
Theodore and his new operating system embody this duality from the very beginning of their relationship. When he first installs Samantha, she asks him a series of personal questions that he never really answers. It doesn't matter to her. His non-committal hemming and hawing is enough for her to begin constructing a perfectly tailored personality. Theodore's corporeal form and his decades of life experience put him ahead of Samantha in one sense. But in another, he is far, far behind her even in their very first "meeting." For better and for worse, we share the world with our machines more and more every single day.