Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: HER

Her is a film on parallel tracks. It’s a gentle and quietly chilling sci-fi film; it’s a fuzzy and empathetic romance. It’s interested in abstract philosophical ruminations on the implications of ever increasing entanglement with ever-smarter technology; it’s a sopping sentimental look into mankind’s yearning for a life of truly meaningful connection and beauty. That these tracks come together with something approaching coherence and cohesion, meeting sometimes convincingly in a sweet and whimsical middle ground between these concerns, is due to writer-director Spike Jonze’s ability to find and present the beating heart and core universal insights that sit inside what appear on the surface to be unwieldy and peculiar concepts. He makes prickly unpredictable, but deeply sympathetic and singularly strange stories – about a portal into the mind of a real actor playing himself, Being John Malkovich; about a case of writer’s block that rewrites before our eyes the very movie we’re watching, Adaptation; about a boy who imagines a storybook world in which his emotions are literal monsters to be ruled over, an adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are – so full of personal and evocative feeling.

With his newest film, he uses science fiction in what has become an increasingly rare use of the genre in its big screen outings. I mean, I love sci-fi about monsters, robots, superheroes, and space opera plenty, but that’s not all the genre is capable of, even if that’s increasingly the only kind that makes it into wide release. With Her, Jonze takes a real concept concerning How We Live Now – the nature of human intimacy in lives increasingly tangled up in smart phones and wearable tech – and layers on some metaphoric complications by imagining a world that’s much like our own, with current trends extrapolated outward. He takes a question one could ask about present day interactions – is cybersex any less an intimate act for being mediated by technology? – and adds a futurist complication. What if the person on the other end isn’t even human? This is no Catfishing parable. In Her, a man depressed in the wake of his divorce upgrades his network – a synced cloud between his computers, phone, and gaming device – to a new operating system and immediately falls in love. He’s not just happy with his purchase. He falls in love with the smart, funny, inquisitive, lively computer voice representing the cutting edge learning and evolving artificial intelligence of his OS.

The man is played by Joaquin Phoenix, often sitting alone in the frame as he talks to the voice of his computer, his eyes lighting up with unexpected energy. He has flesh and blood people to interact with, his neighbor (Amy Adams), his boss (Chris Pratt), and even his ex-wife (Rooney Mara), but still he’s lonely. Speaking to his new digital companion, he’s cautious at first, but the technology soon seems to win him over. It’s just so alive, speaking with the breathy, excited voice of Scarlett Johansson. You might wonder why a computer function would need to breathe at all, but it’s clear that the software is built to grow and learn and speak in a way that’s comfortingly human. No stiff Siri stiltedness here. There are long passages of the film in which the two of them talk, Phoenix and Johansson bantering or exposing their innermost thoughts, which could be lifted out of any film romance barely altered, and it’s startlingly easy to forget for a split second the nature of what is happening. That’s the chilly but humane point bubbling under their interactions. It’s sweet and scary, but tips so hard to the sweet side for so long, it’s all the scarier.

It’s a haunting form of intimacy. He throws himself into the relationship. It is a technological escape from depression and through the process he rediscovers his ability to feel. It’s productive in that way, and he’s increasingly happy with his situation, even shyly admitting to his neighbor that he’s “seeing someone” and “just having lots of fun.” But it was hard for me to shake the awareness that his love is a voice programmed to have all the signifiers of human interaction without anything signified. This is no long-distance relationship with a human. It’s all just bits of code zipping around, learning, evolving, behaving human. (The tantalizing question of how human must a program be before we say it has developed humanity remains hinted at, largely unexplored.) Jonze’s wonderfully humane tone, whimsical and twee without ever becoming too silly, seems to bury this central fact for quite some time, swooning with a twinkly (too twinkly) Arcade Fire score at the romance just as much as Phoenix does. How real is this output really? He rather geekily says research shows OS/human romances are rare, but maybe he’s in one because the input data of his life suggests to the computer that that is exactly what he needs.

Jonze paints the complications simply, subdued under the rosy romantic picture he paints, a soft and warm comfortable environment underneath which sits its colder questioning. It’s an oddity, at once hopeful and pessimistic, saying that even when we become too reliant on technology, it may in the end grow past us to the extent that it’ll know when to leave us. The cinematography suggests this funny futurist optimism, Hoyte Van Hoytema creating imagery that has a pale glow off of the soft pastel colors of shirts – the high-waisted pants are all earth tones that are even softer – and glistening city lights of a world cautiously and convincingly just a few leaps beyond our own. We live in a world of sleek, smooth, curved devices, much like the ones in this film. Everything from the iPhone to the Wii seems soft and appealing with light colors, dulcet tones, soothing beeps, intuitive functionality (some of the time). You can walk into any restaurant and are likely to find a couple sitting across a table from each other, staring deeply into their screens. Her takes infatuation with technology and design to the next level, reveals that, even with some strange and awkward new complications, it can be deeply satisfying and even beneficial for this character. And that’s exactly why it’s so creepy, too.

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