A common narrative device in science fiction is the projection of the baleful effects of a current technological advance or social trend into the future. In “The Truman Show” it was “reality” TV and in “Minority Report” is was “advanced” law enforcement. There is a different target in director Spike Jonze’s “Her” and he doesn’t have to travel that far into the future to find it. It is a preview of where our infatuation with the virtual electronic world might be headed.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a prototypical nerd whose chief companion is an earpiece which allows him to remain in constant communication with his computer. A lonely soul in the midst of a divorce, when we first encounter him he is sitting at a desk pensively composing a love letter. Then the camera pulls back and we get our first surprise. It is a brilliant set up and sets the tone for a film which is both wonderfully unpredictable and genuine food for thought.
Although he remains only vaguely aware of it, there is a central irony in Theodore’s life. Given what he does for a living one would think that he would have no problem navigating the most central part of any relationship – communication. But he and his wife Catherine’s (Roona Mara) marriage has ended up on the rocks and Theodore has no idea of how to right the marital ship. Distracted and at loose ends, one day he finds himself wandering through a technical exposition. There he stumbles across something which promises much more than Internet dating – the OS 1. The latest in cutting edge software, the OS 1 has been designed to be the perfect binary companion.
Theodore is intrigued and the OS 1 is soon up and running on his computer and smart phone. After a short question and answer session in which the OS 1 gets to “know” Theodore, “she/it” tells him her name is Samantha. It doesn’t take long before Samantha is well on the way to crafting a lasting electronic relationship with Theodore. Better yet, this new girlfriend in the cloud has been given the beguiling voice of Scarlett Johansson. Before long, Theodore and Samantha are inseparable and he is convinced that at long last he has found the perfect partner. But as time goes on there is a glitch in this boy-meets-computer fairy tale. If one creates an artificial intelligence program to mimic human thought there is always the possibility that at some point it may start developing some unsettling human habits. When that happens Theodore and Samantha’s courtship takes some unexpected turns.
The world which Jonze has created is just a tick removed from our own. The streets in L.A look just a little more futuristic. There are even more pedestrians glued to their smart phones, and addictive computer games are now holographic 3-D extravaganzas whose dazzling effects fill a room. Apps and games have multiplied exponentially and one of Theodore’s few flesh and blood friends, Amy (the ever impressive Amy Adams), is a game designer.
Her newest effort, “Perfect Mommy,” is a game custom-designed to play to parental anxiety. But, like Theodore, Amy’s human relationships are equally star-crossed. However creative the electronic diversions which surround them, it turns out that this brave new virtual world can be a very lonely place. “Her” is a real original.
Memorable Movie Machines
Hal (“2001”) – With his unblinking red eye and sonorous voice, Hal is one of cinema’s most iconic characters.
Gerty (“Moon”) – Voiced by Kevin Spacey, the only companion of a man (Sam Rockwell) serving a lonely tour of duty on a lunar outpost.
WALL-E (“WALL-E”) – The “Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth Class” is but another in Pixar’s long line of ingenious characters.
Bill Paterson is of counsel to Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP in Ventura.