Sunday, June 26, 2016

Her: "Play melancholy song," then watch this movie.


Writer/Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

After Her was released in 2013, a friend approached me and said that I should really watch it. I shrugged it off, since I’m not a huge fan of Joaquin Phoenix. Furthermore, I’d really not heard anything about the plot except that it was a romantic movie; I normally don’t shy away from romantic movies, but they really aren’t my go-to when it comes to movie nights. One of my students wrote a review of it recently, and the student included a brief synopsis of the story, and I knew I had to give it the ol’ college try. Within the last little while, I’ve been more in tune with sci-fi movies about robots, such as 2015’s Ex Machina, and hearing the synopsis of Her really struck a chord with me.

Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) gives off that loner vibe as the movie begins, and we quickly find out that he’s not much of a success with the ladies. Case in point, he’s actually going through a pretty rough divorce from his wife, Catherine, and he’s not quite over her yet—to the point that he’s been keeping Catherine in limbo by not signing the paperwork to finalize their divorce. Theodore’s life is filled with insincerity and mundanity, and his friend, Amy (Adams), attempts to set him up on a blind date—but again, another strike. In his wanderings around the city with an earbud in his ear and listening to a robotic voice read his emails to him, he sees it: an advertisement for the world’s first artificially-intelligent operating system. Siri and Cortana can eat their hearts out, because Theodore’s operating system—who names herself Samantha (Johansson)—can do it all for him. Literally. All of it. As the two of them spend more time together, Samantha learns about Theodore, and he learns about her.

This movie has (sort of) pulled me out of my Joaquin Phoenix slump, because he made this an incredible performance. In terms of The Revenant from earlier this year, my actor friends argued with me about how deserving Leonardo DiCaprio was because of his performance in that movie and having to act alone throughout most of the movie; I can only imagine how hard that movie was to film, and he’s a real trooper for doing it. That being said, I found Phoenix’s performance here just as dramatic and emotional as DiCaprio’s was in The Revenant—if not more so. Whenever Theodore and Samantha speak to one another, Theodore has to have an earbud in his ear in order to hear her (unless he’s sitting in front of his computer speaking to her directly from his desk chair). Again, having to act in a movie like this all alone is incredible to me, and again, I can only imagine how hard that is to shoot, considering Ian McKellen broke down on the set of The Hobbit because many of his fellow actors were added into his scenes after he completed shooting.

The big thing I love about this movie was the comparison and contrast of humans and machines. The way that Jonze presents Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is so interesting, because he portrays it as a taboo—a taboo that may become more of a reality in coming decades. In our time, if someone loves a machine, we think it’s totally absurd, but in Theodore’s time, set in the near future, it sounds almost acceptable, but it reminded me a lot of how people sometimes hide relationships because they’re ashamed of their partners or because they know society will view the relationship as “abnormal.” In the same vein, Theodore hides his relationship with Samantha from those closest to him, and it’s a good way into the movie before he reveals the relationship to Amy—who also begins dating her own artificially-intelligent operating system.

The human/machine line is crossed further when we start thinking about genuine emotions. Are emotions purely a human thing, or can a machine also have human emotions? Or is a machine simply mimicking human emotions and thereby manipulating the humans around it? These are all questions that Her brings up, from Theodore and Samantha falling in love to Theodore and Catherine falling out of love. When Catherine learns of Theodore’s technological tryst with Samantha, she brings up his introversion and even questions his ability to feel, since he claims to have pushed Catherine away during their marriage when times got tough. Looking toward Samantha, philosophers say that upon the invention of AI systems, those systems will match—and then surpass—human knowledge, so in surpassing human knowledge, is Samantha then more able to feel human emotions, or again, is she simply better able to mimic those human emotions?

In playing with this gray area of human/machine, there are several other areas of the film that could be explored. For example, Theodore works for an online company as a professional writer—of personal letters for people who aren’t good at writing personal letters; a client sends a few pictures and a brief description of the rhetorical situation, and Theodore dictates the content of a personal letter to his computer: the content appears on his screen in a handwritten font, and he then prints the letter and sends it for the client. If people are complaining nowadays about how technology use is ruining young people’s ability to communicate with other humans on a personal level, is this the future that we have to look forward to? Could I be a professional writer who writes personal letters for people whose personal feelings are so inept that they can’t write a letter themselves?

The gray area expands even further when looking at the way that Theodore uses humans/machines (because the line is so blurred, humans and machines are almost the same at this point). Theodore and Samantha start exploring the sexual portion of their burgeoning relationship, which pretty much boils down to cyber-sex or phone sex. Samantha wants to keep pushing this boundary with Theodore, and she invites a woman over. The woman places an earbud in her ear so that she, too, can hear Samantha’s voice, and the woman more or less acts out Samantha’s role in the sexual relationship—which more or less turns the woman into a sex toy. This represents a powerful scene in the movie, and it further blurs the already-blurry line between humans and machines.

Overall, this movie is an absolute triumph, and I’ve found so few movies recently where I’ve actually raised questions about the movie’s themes after it was done—I’m really impressed by the whole thing, and I’d like to buy this soon. This movie felt like a punch in the gut—but in a good way—and it’s definitely worth the watch. Even with all the melancholy bits to this movie, it's still got some great moments of humor that made me laugh really hard. 

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