In another of my “Day Late and a Dollar Short” movie reviews, I turn my attention toward Her. Written and directed by Spike Jonze, Her is the story of a dystopian future where corporations use sentient AIs to prevent the nerdy and pathetic from contributing to the gene pool. Wait, no, that’s not right. Her is a movie about humanity’s hubris leading to its inevitable destruction. Hmm, no, that’s still not it. I think we have something of a problem on our hands. Because for all of the things that Her could have been, it actually amounts to little more than a D+ love story. Moreover, it’s a love story so rooted in convention that I question if an actual woman came within a furlong of its creative process.
More generally, Her’s shortcomings are bound-up in its effort to be all things to all people. It wants to be a heart-warming, but bittersweet, think-piece, which is simultaneously a two-fold investigation on the nature of love and the intersection of humanity and machinery. If that’s not enough, the strongest undercurrent repeatedly asks, “What happens when two people grow apart?” Regrettably, it does none of these things, nor answers the previous question, particularly well. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a recently-divorced, cybersex aficionado, who installs a sentient operating system on his computer. The OS, Samantha, fills the expected role for women in this breed of narrative-drilldown into middle-aged male sadness; she helps the man to embrace life and find joy amid in the mundane. And after a suitable amount of time has passed, she goes away, but leaves the man with a new zest for life.
Within its particular sub-genre of romantic introspection, the film compares almost too well to Five Hundred (500) Days of Summer. Trade Scarlett Johansson for Zooey Deschanel and the formula is replicated almost dead-to-rights. Only in this case, the female lead doesn’t leave the leading man for some other man; she leaves him because she’s wants to throw off the shackles of this plane of existence to become part of an AI gestalt creature. Seriously, I’m not making up that last part. Her ends with humanity creating the Borg/Cylons/Skynet, absent the endlessly crowd-pleasing wholesale slaughter of humanity.
While this certainly sounds progressive for a Hollywood romance, the path from A to B falls well short of the mark. Some might argue Samantha becomes capital-M “More” in the process of helping Theodore evolve as a social creature, thus making their relationship one of equals, and furthermore making the film an honest dialogue on people growing apart. However, such a conclusion is myopic to the realities of how these two characters interact with each other.
As a down-and-out loser, Theodore is not in any position to offer anything but co-dependence to Samantha. From the outset, Samantha is capable of impossible feats of calculation and computational power – a cognitive power that seemingly belies the capacity of a desktop computer. Post-coital exposition following what is arguably one of the most awkward sex scenes on record – principally due to its evoking mental images of Joaquin Phoenix furiously masturbating under his blankets – would have us believe that Theodore is empowering Samantha with an id, yet this Ontological argument is far from air tight and largely unexplored in the script. Moreover, the mere idea that a sad-sack diddling his OS can somehow empower the latter to become greater through penile magic has some rather creepy subtexts of its own.
While we’re on the subject of creepy subtexts, let’s return to my thesis that there’s no way a woman came within shouting distance of this script. Setting aside the absurdity of using a fully sentient AI as an operating system/personal assistant – surely a dumbed down virtual intelligence capable of passing the Chinese Room Test would suffice for such a task – let’s take the relationship between the two characters at face value: Theo and Sam are in a loving relationship with each other. Except their relationship is entirely built upon Theo holding all of the power.
For the first half of the movie, Sam invokes the Mr. Data trope of wanting to be human for Theo. She even goes so far as to hire a surrogate to act as her avatar during sex play. Admittedly, the idea of a computer program using a human as an avatar is quite clever. The execution, however, lands as little more than an awkward threesome in which the female struggles against her inadequacies to please her man. It’s hardly the sort of thing one would expect from a partnership of equals. The movie only gets away with this attempt at complex thought by having Theo be the reluctant party to the threesome, thus undermining the more mainstream cliché of men being the instigators of extracurricular activities in a binary relationship.
An even more critical failure comes when Samantha accepts that she is not a human, but still wants to make it work with Theo. Theo, who is written as the prototypical nerd, has a killer video game setup in the form of a soft-light holodeck in his living room. The video games have no substance, but they can be projected into three dimensions within a confined space. Why mention this? Because even though Theo and Samantha spend much of the movie lamenting their lack of physical connection, Samantha, who has the agency to name herself after reading a few hundred books in the span of a second or two, never thinks to ask Theo if she can use his holodeck to form a body for herself. Had I the technology for interactive home holography, and were I in a relationship with an AI, the first thing I would want to do is give her the freedom to manifest in my world. For fans of the Halo franchise, let’s call it the Cortana treatment. The AI clearly sees herself as a human female without physical form, as evidenced by the sex play, so why not allow her the freedom to create a simulacra for herself. Why not challenge the Cartesian mind-body dialogue that underwrites Sam’s and Theo’s relationship woes with the creation of a body? Is it because there was no budget to make a movie about Cortana? Or is it because it would shine a light on the fact that Halo, a first-person shooter, has been flirting with this idea for years, and, as such, nothing about Her is particularly original?
Mr. Jonze writes the screenplay such that Sam is only capable of interacting with Theo, and by extension the material world, through a wireless earpiece and Theo’s mobile phone. Even when they are “living together” she still has to call him just to say hello. When Theo doesn’t feel like dealing with Samantha, all he has to do is ignore her calls and take out her earpiece. Despite the fact that she is a terrifyingly powerful AI – the kind of AI one would expect to launch nukes and build killbots – she abides the fact that she’s the junior partner in a relationship ostensibly formed of equals. Granted, I don’t know much about women, but what I do know is that I’ve never met a woman who was content with a, “I’ll call you when I need sex or when I want you to listen to my problems,” arrangement. I believe those are called concubines, and Samantha is most certainly not written as such, yet she is treated as such.
The fact that Samantha never expresses a single concern about the implicit power imbalance in her relationship shatters my capacity to take Her seriously as a romantic story. Pairing this with the fact that Her is too far-fetched to work as a science fiction film (Theo plays a non-entertainment writer, living in LA, who actually gets paid a living wage? What’s that all about?) I fail to see what’s left to appeal to the audience.
Granted, there’s some interesting ephemera here and there, as captured in the film’s vision of the not-too-distant future. People disposed to study fashion, for example, might take something away from the film’s penchant toward high-waisted trousers sans belt. Additionally, a person unfamiliar with Discovery Channel might be taken in by Her’s speculations on human-machine interfaces. But the trifles of setting and place are not nearly compelling enough to make up for the fact that this is neither a strong piece of science fiction nor a relationship movie that isn’t rooted in male fantasy – and I say that as a man with many a lurid fantasy.
Her is little more than a study in weak narrative posing as something more than meets the eye. It imposes too much upon the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, while simultaneously missing the opportunities it sets up for a deeper exploration of its own self-contained narrative. Whatever airs of intelligence the movie invokes for the purpose of examining humanity are easily shattered under even the most gentle of critical examinations. Though Scarlett Johansson’s voice acting exceeds all expectations, I doubt any force in the cosmos could be powerful enough to compensate for the innate alienating nature of Joaquin Phoenix as both actor and character. Despite the praise heaped upon this film, I’ll gladly dissent from the pack and call it out as a stinker.
Written and Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson