Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Cinema File #286: "Her" Review

We like to think that the thing that defines the human species, that which elevates us and separates us from the animals, is our intellect, our ability to perceive ourselves and conceive of things like philosophy and civilization. And yet, when it comes to actually relying on that definition, it is just as often our emotional dimension that makes the difference. In the recent documentary Blackfish for example, it isn’t simply that the whales are possibly as smart as we are, but that they are almost certainly more emotionally adept than humans that makes us sympathize with their plight. At a time when the state of technology is evolving to the point where our traditional understanding of what constitutes intelligent life might also soon need to evolve, Spike Jones’ latest film Her suggests that the biggest problem we’ll have in acclimating to artificial life might not be what we think of them, but how we feel about them.

Her is a love story between a man and his computer, or rather, a man and an artificially intelligent operating system, charted from their unassuming first meeting at startup all the way to the bittersweet ending you have to expect by now from a Spike Jones movie. It seems so bizarre that this is only Jonze's fourth feature film since debuting all the way back in 1999 with Being John Malkovich, considering how indelible his style and voice has become since then. I wish there were more examples of his feature length work to pull from, not only just to have them, but so that it would have the proper amount of impact when I say that his new film is easily and by far his best. If there was any doubt sewn after the somewhat lackluster Where The Wild Things Are that Jonze could still be a great filmmaker independent of the mind of Charlie Kaufman, Her should be all the relief you need.

The thing I love most about Her is that it goes out of its way to make no judgements about the relationship at the core of the story. I don't just mean that it presents the love between man and machine as genuine, which it does, but that it leaves no room to come to the erroneous conclusion that this love, though unconventional, is any less real or equally valid than the love between two humans. As the film cycles through all the possible threats and complications to their happiness together, it never paints the computerized Samantha as a crutch for supposedly authentic human attachment. The possibility that this is the case for the main character is broached, but the world of the movie doesn't validate it or settle on it as a pat solution to the complexities of two very different kinds of lifeforms finding each other and trying to build a life together.

The crux of this movie lies in the credibility of the romance between these two characters, one of whom is just a disembodied voice essentially in the other's head. This would have been so easy to get wrong, and its a testament to the two leads that you at no point question the reality of it. It is often said that one of Joaquin Phoenix's greatest strengths as an actor is his ability to disappear into a role (sometimes to his detriment), and no truer has this ever been than in the case of Theodore. I don't know what he's doing, but it almost makes me retroactively believe something as subtle as a pair of glasses can make the difference between Clark Kent and Superman. I almost suspect that Scarlett Johansson's decision to take the role of Samantha is a deliberate swipe at her recent stint as Black Widow, a character designed to highlight her physical attributes more than her acting ability. Its amazing how much she can do to flesh out this character with just her voice, no less vulnerable for lack of a body and no less human even as she grows beyond her initial limitations.

In the end, the chasm between who Theodore is as a human and the rapidly evolving digital consciousness he knows as Samantha strains their initial compatibility more than any external social pressure (which seems refreshingly though strangely non-existent). The resolution to this problem is a bit of a cop-out, while at the same time feeling completely organic and necessary. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but this movie is all about living comfortably in contradictions, and this just happens to be the one that might qualify as slightly disappointing. Its earned, but feels a bit gratuitously melancholy in a post Whedon world where the idea of Happily Ever After can't exist outside of a Disney movie. Maybe this is just the poor sop in me who prefers comforting lies to harsh realities, but just because real life doesn't always work out perfectly doesn't mean you can't throw us a bone now and again in our fictional escape mechanisms.

Given how far technology has advanced since the first room sized computers in the era before micro processing, it feels like its only a matter of time before this fantasy of living data becomes a reality. Leave it to the guy who brought us doorways into the minds of B-List character actors to posit a scenario for the Singularity that's even more heartbreaking than Skynet. That being said, Her is a nearly pitch perfect execution of an incredibly subtle and deceptively simple concept. By itself, "Man falls in love with his computer" sounds like the log line for a wacky Jim Carrey comedy from the 90's, but in the hands of Spike Jonze the story is able to grow into something truly special and (I would guess) universally entertaining. I find myself descending into a never ending string of positive adjectives whenever I attempt to describe just how good this movie is and how much you should see it, so in the interest of brevity, I'll just say its one of the best movies of the year, and an experience you don't want to pass up.

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