Mosaic / Reviews / February 24, 2014

Nothing artificial about the intelligent ‘Her’

One afternoon, while procrastinating by way of Internet surfing, I stumbled upon an image of the voice behind Siri, a woman by the name of Susan Bennett. The experience was nothing short of discomfiting. I suddenly felt equipped to place myself in Dorothy’s ruby slippers and understand the utter shock that comes from seeing a person pulling the strings behind another “person.” Like Dorothy, what I had seen was incongruous with the reality I had come to believe in. Siri had always just been — Siri. Her own entity.

Spike Jonze’s “Her” is a film for this era. In the smallest of nutshells, it is about a man from the not-so-distant future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who unexpectedly falls in love with a Siri-like artificial operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).

Theodore writes personalized letters for customers who lack the time and energy to write them. While the letters are technically false, the emotions we hear in Theodore’s soft voiceovers are indisputably genuine. Theodore travels from work to home, home to work, all the while listening to mood-adaptable music via earbuds that fill one of his senses with a constant stream of technological stuff. It is different from our present world, and yet, who doesn’t love to walk around listening to their own music, drowning out the noises of the real world?

One day, Theodore buys the latest artificial operating system and discovers that it feels a little more real than any previous devices he’s known. Or, significantly more real. She names herself Samantha, and soon enough the two get to talking, then to laughing, then to — other things. Theodore opens up about his recently failed relationship with his wife, played largely in flashbacks by Rooney Mara, and Samantha confesses to feeling some very human desires.

Where “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” was fantastical way back in 2001, “Her” feels immediate and conceivable. It is strange how much can change within the span of a single decade. One can almost picture a next-door neighbor speaking sweet nothings addressed to Siri into the speaker of his iPhone 5 (they’re still on number 5, right?). I believe there was even a “Big Bang Theory” episode that centered around a character falling for Siri.

Humans crave companionship, and if one can get that company and acceptance through technology, the roles of technology will change. Smartphones already act as best friends for many people, even if we’re not aware of that. Think about it: We wake up to their screens, we carry them with us all day and then we go to sleep with their fluorescent lights guiding us off to dreamland. “Till death do us part,” eh?

I believe that a good film provides answers, but a better film provides questions. Jonze is known to do that. His previous works, such as “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Where the Wild Things Are” have been known to leave audiences sitting through the end credits with brows slightly furrowed and mouths agape. “Her” has much the same effect; it does not tell its audience how to feel about Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. If looked at one way, the unconventional romance can appear sweet and fulfilling, but if thought about for a while, the sweetness is called into question. Jonze’s screenplay (his first) sidles right up to Theodore’s heart, and we see the rose-colored world through his weary eyes.

Phoenix is impressively tame as Theodore, allowing the character to shrug in the face of those who deem him mentally unstable. It’s an about-face for Phoenix from his manic role in last year’s “The Master,” and I’m absolutely jazzed to see him showing off his remarkable versatility. The raspy Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha, and she does well. I must say, though, a part of me laments the fact that I can so easily place a human face behind Samantha’s voice (honestly, who doesn’t think Scarlett Johansson when they hear Scarlett Johansson’s voice?), but it turned out to be less of a distraction than I had gloomily predicted. Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde show off some acting chops of their own as they play, respectively, Theodore’s quirky filmmaking friend and his volatile date. It’s a good film for performances — everyone is refreshingly raw.

“Her” should not win Best Picture. That award should rightfully go to one of the most important films in American cinematic history, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” and I will stand by that. But “Her” is important, too, in a quieter way. It acknowledges the modern mania for ever-progressing technology, but ultimately brings things back to simple human longings for love and companionship. It asks its audience to recognize our society’s trending isolationism and gives a realistic glimpse into the future of such a trend. It asks about not only what kind of parties can be involved in a loving relationship, but also what is love? There is charm, there is ambiguity, there is freshness and there is sincerity, which is severely underrated in modern cinema. Its reflective sincerity may go unrecognized by the Academy, but if I have inspired just one person to give “Her” a watch, then I am satisfied.

Tags:  best picture her Joaquin Phoenix oscars siri

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