I’m not a big car guy. I’d love an El Camino, don’t get me wrong, but I drive a Toyota Corolla and couldn’t be more content. Over the course of the last year that gray sedan has taken me up and down the East coast on some of my finest adventures and because it’s taken me the places it has I really do love that Corolla. It’s taken me on thousands of miles worth of journeys. And it takes me to work every day. And it takes me to the grocery store on Sundays. And it takes me to the comic book store on Wednesdays.
I rely on my Toyota Corolla for many of my freedoms.
But what happens when a reliance on technology becomes a relationship?
And what happens when that relationship becomes personal, even human?
It’s not as far-fetched a thought as it might have been ten years ago. We communicate with friends from all walks of our lives at any given time through texts and instant messages and posts and tweets. Would you really notice it the reply your query of “sup” heralded didn’t originate from a warm body after all?
Questions like these are the basis for director and writer Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson.
Phoenix plays protagonist Theodore Twombly, an adorable, harmless, neo-hipster looking fellow who, at the start of the film, is struggling to come to grips with a divorce that is anything but consensual. He lives in Jonze’s vibrant, wonderfully realized vision of future Los Angeles, a colorful, angular world with something of a Windows 8 home screen for an aesthetic.
Twombly moves through LA, mostly between his office and his apartment, largely inside of his own head. While there are people all around him most of his exchanges are with an automated head set that reads him his emails and his newsfeeds and transcribes his messages. There’s no sci-fi to it. It’s Siri. Theodore loses himself in a device that is prominent today.
But that all changes when he purchases OS-1, the first operating system with an adaptive artificial intelligence that learns from its interactions with its owner. You’ve seen this premise before. But in a twist on a classic science fiction story OS-1 doesn’t quickly decide it’s a slave, murder the entire human race and start time-traveling and hunting Keanu Reeves.
Rather than becoming a robot overlord, OS-1 becomes Scarlett Johansson and names itself Samantha. Equipped with an indomitable sense of wonder, Samantha wants to know and experience everything life, virtual or not, has to offer. Her is the story of one entity that has grown incapable of seeing the miracles of the world and the life it harbors and another entity who can see nothing but.
It’s a romantic comedy starring a boy and his iPhone. A concept that, as several viewers behind me in the theater consistently exemplified, can seem a bit sill. LOL amiright? But if you can look even a millimeter past that basic premise, Her is nothing short of a full on philosophical examination of human contact and interpersonal relationships in the internet age.
With Her, Jonze asserts that the digitization of human interaction is yet another example of humankind’s reach far exceeding our grasp. But rather than delivering his cautionary message wrapped in T-Rexs and Jeff Goldblum’s blood, Jonze instead utilizes quaint mustaches and Arcade Fire to highlight a growing gap between access to information and a full comprehension and appreciation of that information.
With 24-hour news and image searches and various chat rooms and hotlines we have access to some small percentage of almost anyone at any time. We can sit at our computer screens and let our fantasies roam rampant amongst perverse composites of any number of infinite characteristics we think we want in a partner. Or just characteristics we want to try out for five minutes. And yet, with the perpetual promise of something, anything else, how do we ever decide on any one thing? How do you not hit “next” when that button symbolizes everything else imaginable? How do you not glance at an incoming text message when that chime is the sound of possibility?
Every alert, every notification, every song, every video, every news story, every link and every click is the unknowable next second of your life, a second trapped in a box alongside Schrödinger’s cat. And if you don’t open that box, how will you ever know? What’s the alternative? To stay here? Now?
Where do love and passion and humanity fit in amongst all that digital clamor?
We humans are curious and, psychopaths aside, emotional bunch. Her throws the relationship between those two characteristics fifteen years into the future, with spectacular, thought-provoking results. It’s the Empire Strikes Back to The Social Network’s Phantom Menace.
Science fiction is at its best when it has something to say, or is directed by Christopher Nolan. Which is why Her is my favorite sci-fi flick since Inception.
It poses important, worthwhile questions about technology, gender relations, sex and humanity and at the end of the film none of those questions have clear cut answers. Is our over-reliance on technology damnable, or is it just the future? Her leaves the answer up to you.
It’s a contemplative piece, one that I’m still thinking about long after viewing and will probably continue thinking about until Interstellar comes out.
1. Is our reach on the cusp of exceeding our grasp? Has it already?
2. Is Samantha the Matrix?
3. When does Interstellar come out?
For more on the year’s award-nominated films: