CCNMA: She’s got a way of talking — Her

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The next time that I stare deeply into the Windows boot-up screen of my PC, or lovingly caress the Android interface on the touchscreen of my media player, and feel the fiery blush of passion heating my loins, will be the first. Frankly, looking at a monitor or touching a handheld device, both of which I do dozens of times a day, hasn’t ever even stirred a budding flicker of elevated indifference. So while, yeah, I get that the main human character of the new roman-tech drama Her is responding to an auditory stimulus generations more advanced than even the most dulcet warblings of Siri, something about the basic premise Boy Meets Operating System is still just a bridge too far.

In addition to exploring the evolving nature of intimacy, Her is another of those cautionary screeds about how fascination with technology is overwriting our ability to have actual relationships with people. We don’t even look each other in the eye anymore, for the love of Steve Jobs! No, really, it’s for the love of Jobs himself, or at least the culture of personal device worship that he godfathered. Her doesn’t beat that drum so hard that you can’t hear anything else it has to say, but it’s also far from a novel suggestion anymore. The zom-rom-com “Warm Bodies” only needed about 5 brilliantly pithy seconds to fire its own trenchant broadside on that score last year.

The her in Her is Samantha, who — no sense burying the lead — is really more of an it than a gender-specific pronoun. She’s the OS on the PD of TT — near-future professional letter writer Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix — an impulse-purchased AI who lives in Theo’s omnipresent wireless earpiece, monitoring the digital parameters of his world. Samantha combines the best attributes of an efficient personal assistant, loving mother, chatty sidekick and, yes, eventually, tender lover.

HERI do and don’t buy that last bit, and I can envision hours of idle philosophizing attacking or defending whether it would, or even could, actually happen. Part of the magic of the movie is that it’s not as complicated as it sounds. The way that writer and director Spike Jonze gradually unfolds things lets the budding relationship between Ted and Sam accrue its own fragile logic. The premise that “a guy falls in love with the OS on his phone” is so ludicrous on its face, frankly, that it’s truly impressive that Her works at all — which it does, up to a point.

Samantha is self-aware, learning-enabled and both quick on the uptake — she chooses her own name after “reading” a book of baby names in a split second — and thick as a thundercloud. It’s a fun (if buried) observation that something created and programmed entirely by humans should struggle so hard to understand humanness. Over the course of the movie, Samantha makes a gradual transition, wonderfully captured in Scarlett Johansson’s remarkable voice-only performance, from the childlike awe of initial awareness to a more nuanced and mature understanding of the world.

The relationship that vivacious, eager Samantha forges with meek, mopey Ted — mired in the bitter aftermath of his failed marriage to much-flashbacked Catherine (played with fiery self-possession by Rooney Mara) — is not without precedent. It’s been almost 15 years since Robin Williams played a robot crushing on a human in Bicentennial Man, after all, and we don’t have to look nearly so far into the rear view mirror to spot Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark shooting the breeze with Jarvis, the unfailingly even-keeled AI who’s in charge of Tony’s Iron Man suit.

By far the best analogue to what you’ll see in Her, however, comes out of a book, not a movie. Anyone who has read the Ender’s Game sequel Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card, will almost certainly be reminded of Jane, the sentient program who’s a smart, sassy voice in Ender’s ear throughout most of the novel. We never witness Ender and Jane’s first encounter, but the interdependence and easy familiarity that they share is very much of a piece with the middle section of Her.

HERAt a relationship level, the stories diverge largely in the view taken by the male protagonist of his “feminine” counterpart. Ender holds Jane in high esteem, but their relationship is decidedly platonic, a purely psychological twining of lost souls. Theodore Twombly, on the other hand, is a more-than-willing passenger on a train of thought that leads to a handful of surreal destinations, none kookier than Samantha’s hiring a human surrogate so that she and T-Time can maybe do a little more than just whisper sweet-n-salty nothings to each other.

The relationship ends up working itself out in a way that will be surprising to some and probably expected by others. It gives Her an ending that is both wistful and hopeful. And probably inevitable. Cupid’s arrows, it would seem, can indeed travel by Ethernet, but the wily little guy is no better a virtual marksman than he is when taking aim at targets of flesh and blood.

PROGRAMMING NOTES

IT’S ONLY A GAME: I feel like Spike Jonze is sharing some sort of weird wavelength with Orson Scott Card. Early on in Her, Ted’s immersion in technology is underlined by his playing a storymaking video game in which his virtual avatar freely explores a world without particular objectives or limitations. It’s very similar to the fantasy simulator from Ender’s Game that builds a psychological profile as Ender plays it (and eventually becomes the genesis of Jane). The echo is sharpest when Ted hits up against an apparent dead-end in the game, and can’t proceed until attempting an unorthodox strategy.

DR. T AND THE WOMEN: The relationship between Theo and Samantha is the centerpiece of Her and captures most, though not all, of the storytelling focus. Phoenix and Johansson give nuanced, affecting performances, but Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star Mara is equally good as the woman who had a whole other life with Ted, and is in fact still tied to him by a cache of unsigned divorce papers. Olivia Wilde makes an engaging impression as a blind date forced on Ted by Sammy (who, before taking an interest in the boss herself, urges him to stop feeling sorry for himself and get back in the game), and Oscar-winner Amy Adams is the college pal and neighbor who validates Ted’s quirky dating life by forging her own OS-human connection. Even Kristen Wiig gets a piece of the action, as lonelyheart who briefly (and amusingly) connects with Ted via an audio-only, ah, meet-up service.

DOES AN OS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?: We tend to ascribe our own limitations to others, be they human or binary. So even though Fast Teddy gets an unmistakable glimpse of the vast breadth of Samantha’s digital intellect almost immediately after meeting her — remember how she gets a name? — he doesn’t really think about the implications of the gap in their respective processing speeds, or at least not right away. Love is blind, as they say. And Samantha sounds like such a nice girl. But no, to sleep — perchance to dream — is the least of Samantha’s actual needs. As Ted eventually learns, there are many hours in the day and night for an OS to fill.

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Chip Hartweir

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CHIP HARTWEIR is a Certified Cinemaniac who likes movies, computers and especially movies about computers. He has won numerous awards for writing about film and has a keyboard with arm's reach most hours of the day. E-mail him at chiphartweir (at) gmail (dot) com.

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