It looks like we’ve moved beyond wondering if androids think of electric sheep: The question is what if artificial intelligences fall in love with us, and vice versa. With director Spike Jonze has moved on from 2010’s I’m Here to his latest, Her, and the possibilities of machine love gets fleshed out even more.
Scarlett Johansson’s voice plays the ever-charming Samantha, the voice operated operating system, OS One, that powers the computers of the future. She’s the product of multiple choices by Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly (done quiz style, or Buzzfeed-quiz style, to fit the popular parlance) as the Voice acting never really gets much plaudits, but kudos to Johansson for portraying, with simply her voice, a Samantha that is at once helpful, warm, lovely and even intensely intelligent – a far step up from Siri on your iPhone. Hearing her pontificate on her own nature of existence can be heart rending.
But it is Phoenix’s performance that is purely amazing – the camera lingers tight on his face, capturing every emotion – and it is this intensity that drives the movie forward. Phoenix is the lonely ghostwriter of letters that is in the midst of a divorce from Catherine (an impactful Rooney Mara in what is a minor role), cut adrift in a foggy Shanghai that does an amazing job as a city of the future. His only friend left might be Amy (Amy Adams, who continues to wow with her recent acting choices), that is, until he meets Samantha, who begins to learn and adapt to his wants and needs.
Eschewing the common sci-fi aesthetic – cold blue tones, giant touch screens with information overload or Minority Report-esque motion controls – Her presents a future that is ultimately believable. Users interact with technology with tiny, simple gestures, and better: With natural conversations, and bask in the warm glow of their closeness with technology. But beyond that, what the movie has is a lot of heart, and a bleeding tender one at that. It is enthralling to see, even in the future, love is our only constant even if it’s not from conventional sources.
Jonze doesn’t quite approve nor criticise how technology will become woven into the fabric of our lives, and those looking for a stance one way or another will have to look elsewhere. Jonze instead extrapolates it as it is – as we barrel forward with our smartphones and Siri, it appears we will end up at this point. It is an elegant construct that portrays all possible points of view – disgust, acceptance and love, but also suggest that all are correct.
For the most part, I thought it never actually got creepy – maybe we’re further along accepting this than we thought. There are a lot of tender, contemplative moments as you watch Theodore’s journey, and it’s clear that artificial intelligence has come a long way from “I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”. At its core, the movie basks in the warm glow of our gadgets, whether or not it also gets us closer to people. Maybe the point was best made by a fellow viewer one row in front of me in the cinema: She couldn’t stop, every few minutes, to check her phone – at one point even reading Wikipedia about the movie itself. I think Jonze is definitely on to something here.
That said, some people WILL find it creepy – whether it’s because the idea of a man-machine interface is off-putting; or the fact that the nascent OS, responding to Theodore’s needs and wants, actually assumes the role of a sex toy rather than an operating system or an assistant. This is open to debate – but what I will say is that if Samantha were a true AI, then her behaviour is just among the myriad possibilities a true AI will undergo. And this story, after all, isn’t really about machine love, but about human love, how we – after years of evolution – have still no handle on how to experience love and how to hold on to love, and last of all, how to actually love.
Well, here’s hoping Chris Pratt becomes a bona fide movie star!