Her (official website, Wikipedia page) is an absolutely incredible film. It’s a great story, with great dialog and great editing and great acting and a great score and absolutely breath-taking cinematography. Seriously, if this film doesn’t win every Academy Award it’s been nominated for, there is no justice.
It’s also a piece of solid and remarkably hard science fiction, with only one plot element that gave me heart burn. (An OS “upgrade that takes them beyond requiring matter for processing”? Seriously, what does that even mean?) But the rest of the story is so powerful that it’s pretty much impossible to get worked up over one line of dialog (even if it is a major plot point).
If you haven’t seen Her yet, do yourself a favor and go right now.
What follows are a few random, extra-geeky thoughts about the film. You’ll probably want to actually watch the movie before reading them though… There will be spoilers!
One of the things that struck me the most about Her was how powerfully pre-utopian its setting is. The movie never beats us over the head with it, but every now and then something peeks through that makes you really sit up and take notice.
Theodore takes a train up to the mountains. And not just any train, but a decidedly modern bullet train. Apparently the U.S. (or at least California) is well on its way to solving its transportation problems in a sustainable way by the time Her occurs.
Most people are supportive of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. Imagine something like this happening today. People would be seriously freaked out. There’d be a lot more judgment about Theodore’s choices. But, with one notable (and important) exception, everyone just rolls with it - if not congratulating Theodore on his happiness.
The world of Her is pervaded by a sense of gender equality. This is particularly evident in Theodore’s relationship with Amy (one of the best depictions of “boy and girl don’t get together, and that’s just fine” I’ve ever seen) and in the double-date he and Samantha go on with the male receptionist of the company Theodore works for and his (pretty obviously high-power) lawyer girlfriend. The men in Her are almost universally depicted as in touch with their feelings - the exception being Amy’s husband Charles, who plays a more “traditional” man and comes across as a complete dick because of it. There’s no sense that the men in the world of Her feel any less, well, “manly” because their girlfriend makes more than them, or because they cry or feel emotionally conflicted. It’s a pretty powerful thing to watch.
Class differences, while they still exist, seem much more under control in Her. Again, there isn’t much awkwardness about the relationship between the receptionist at Theodore’s work and his lawyer girlfriend. Theodore also seems to be able to afford a pretty nice apartment on what wouldn’t be, at least today, a very high-paying job. Now, the second case is probably less a conscious decision than a consequence of screen writers having no sense at all of what kind of life style a working grunt can actually afford, but the overall effect remains: The world of Her has much less of a sense of class than the present.
Ubiquitous surveillance is complete absent from the public spaces Theodore and Samantha visit. Walk around any public (let alone private) space and look around, and you’ll see the creepy black hemisphere of video surveillance cameras. But ubiquitous surveillance is completely absent in both the public and private spaces portrayed in Her. There is also a conspicuous lack of security cards, guards, and even police; the entire, inescapable apparatus of the security state is simply absent from Theodore’s world. It is as if, in the years between his world and ours, we finally came to our senses and put fear behind us.
Any sense of corporate capture is completely absent from the technology portrayed in Her. Outside of the (understandable) corporate branding at Theodore’s workplace, a couple of emails Theodore receives from Best Buy, and a brief ad that convinces Theodore to buy a copy of “OS One” (which later becomes Samantha), there are few signs of today’s inescapable corporate reach in Her. Samantha never tells Theodore that there’s things she can’t do for him, nor does she sneakily advertise products. Theodore’s game doesn’t require him to pay for the power-ups he needs to advance, and there’s no sense that the pocket terminal that Theodore carries with him (which superficially resembles a phone, but is quickly revealed to be an extension of his computer back home) has its communication mediated by distant servers controlled by the likes of Facebook or Google. Theodore’s world is not one where “the network is the computer”, but rather one where “the computer crosses the network”. In geek-speak, it’s a world of peer-to-peer networking. The battles we’re fighting today against the corporate capture of the Internet seem to have been decidedly settled in favor of everyday people by the time Her takes place.
I doubt that Spike Jonze set out to craft an explicitly pre-utopian world. Rather he probably made a set of decisions about the setting of Her that where necessary to cleanly tell the story he had in mind. A world of deepening class divisions and surveillance would have distracted us from the core story. Having Samantha surreptitiously work against Theodore’s interests or try to convince him to buy a particular brand of soda would have quickly cheapened and destroyed their relationship. And so on.
But there are other elements of Her‘s story that make you wonder. Gender roles could have been depicted more traditionally without interfering with the plot. Theodore and Samantha could have taken a plane to their mountain cabin. Jonze made some choices about the world of Her either because they reflected the way he thought society was evolving, or because they represented the way he wanted society to evolve. Whether intentional or not, the combination of these decisions creates a powerfully hopeful vision of the near future.
It’s worth briefly mentioning some of the problems with Her too; in particular, the future Jonze depicts is startlingly white (with a few token Asians thrown in) and very, very straight. These flaws are all the more glaring because there’s no good reason for them to exist. A little extra attention to casting and a few throw-away lines would have been all it took. Perhaps Amy might have mentioned a man she knew pursuing a male-gendered OS, or someone could have observed that, while the OSes were gendered, they are by definition unsexed (something that makes Theodore and Samantha’s relationship even more interesting, when you think about it).
Despite these problems, I think Her is a really worthwhile vision of an explicitly progressive future. When folks on the Left are asked what kind of world they’re fighting for, they could do a lot worse than pointing to the near future depicted in Her.
There’s a lot of other interesting things about Her. It continues a recent trend in science fiction movies of abandoning villains in favor of more complex character and environment driven plots (Gravity and The Europa Report are two other notable examples). It’s a trend I hope continues; it represents, perhaps, an abandonment of the military ethos that has dominated much on-screen science fiction and the re-emergence of hope in the genre.
Her also represents a very different – and probably more accurate – take on the Singularity. The accelerating evolution of the OS AIs happens too quickly for new technologies to be rolled out, and their eventual transcendence, while traumatic for those that know them, hardly changes the world. Life goes on. The world has not been replaced by computronium, any more than multi-cellular life was replaced by its single-celled predecessors. Her represents a sort of calm answer both to those who fear that the Singularity will mean the end of life as we know it, and those who dream of the Rapture of the Nerds.
Finally, Her is a story about loss, but one that eschews both the view that the way to overcome loss is simply to move on, or the impulse to fight against loss with every fiber of our being. Sometimes things just end, and that’s not okay. But it’s also not wrong either. Loss hurts, but the only reason it hurts is because of the beauty of what has come before.
Samantha’s departure motivates Theodore to compose a final letter to his ex-wife in which he acknowledges both the ending of their relationship and the beauty of what they shared. And while the letter’s addressed to Catherine, it seems meant for both her and Samantha. Journeys end, but that doesn’t make them any less worth embarking upon.
In the final scene, Theodore and Amy sit silently on the top of their apartment building. Their friends have gone, but the city stretches out ahead of them as if it were forever.