On my way to the theater, I asked Siri about the movie Her, and she got confused. "What kind of businesses are you looking for?" Siri replied in her always off-kilter robotic murmur. I barked back some line about Siri being stupid. She cracked some stupid joke. And my phone went back into my pocket.
So you can understand why I was skeptical about Spike Jonez's new movie Her. A story about a lonely man who falls in love with his computer? Feels pretty forced. A future full of computers that we talk to like humans? That's a little more realistic. A movie that allows Joaquin Phoenix to wear a mustache and a heartsick expression? Now that's believable. It's also the first thing you notice when you sit down to watch Her.
"Wow," you'll think to yourself. "Joaquin Phoenix looks sad."
Hold that thought. Keep it in the corner of your eye like a little Google Glass display, so you can continuously remind yourself of that detail as you watch the movie. Because inevitably, Her isn't really a movie about falling in love with computers. It's a movie about the loneliness we all share and our increasingly futile attempt to pacify that yearning with technology. When we're alone these days, we typically don't embrace the silence and think about things. We instinctively reach for our phones and check our email, clear our Facebook notifications or read the internet. Sometimes, we just gaze down at the dull glow of the screen, touching nothing. There are probably even a few people out there who ask Siri questions, even though she sucks.
When I finally found the theater and sat down to watch Her, I couldn't stop thinking about my phone, a rectangular hunk of glass and aluminum in my pocket. We've been seeing cell phones and smartphones in movies for years now, but Her is the first one I've seen that's actually about the technology—or rather, it's a commentary on our relationship with the technology. It's a pointed one, too.
The plot of Her is simple enough: A lonely man with a mustache named Theodore seeks meaning. Played valiantly by Joaquin Phoenix, this man is going through a divorce with his very pretty wife, Rooney Mara, and it's tearing him up. Theo's day job—writing love letters for strangers—isn't really helping. He's also not really social: when a friend sets him up on a date with another very pretty woman, played by Olivia Wilde, he fails spectacularly.
Then he buys a new operating system. This isn't any operating system; it's a hyper-intelligent operating system that's voice controlled and virtually indistinguishable from a real person. It's customized to fit the needs of the user, and in this case, the user needs a lady friend. Thus, Samantha is born (with the very pretty voice of Scarlett Johansson). Adventure follows.
It's a weird, beautiful adventure in an all-too-believable future. We don't know how far ahead it is, but judging from the setting in a proto-Blade Runner version of Los Angeles, the movie is several decades ahead. Unlike many gadget-heavy sci-fi flicks, the technology isn't completely mind-blowing. There are no flying cars. People do not live in space—at least not that we know of. Everything is actually almost normal. Everyone carries around these handsome-looking smartphone devices that they control by speaking through a wireless earbud. That sounds a lot like right now!
That resemblance to present day reality is surely what makes the most ridiculous part of the movie sort of believable as you watch it. And it is ridiculous: Theo falls in love with his operating system Samantha in, like, three seconds. As if that weren't weird enough, Theo's friends are somehow totally cool with his girlfriend living inside of a smartphone. (His ex-wife is not.) This is evidently somewhat common in this rose-colored future, so common that there are even services that will provide your fake computer girlfriend or boyfriend with a surrogate so that the two of you can get carnal. Otherwise, the romance more or less amounts to a long distance relationship on the phone with a person who doesn't actually exist.
So this is actually, theoretically possible. If computer scientists were able to build an artificially intelligent operating system smart enough, it could talk to you, listen to your problems, give you compliments, whatever you want. Siri can already do some of these things, but, like I said before, she's a pretty crumby companion. Theo's operating system Samantha, however, is both sentient and sexual. It's almost as if she was designed specifically to pacify lonely single men such as Theo—and part of her algorithm probably was. With an almost endless series of "if… then" clauses, Samantha can sense Theo's sadness and take steps to rectify it. Theo's sadness is nothing but a math problem.
Wouldn't it be great if the world did really work like that?
Emotions are not algorithmic, though. We turn to technology when we're lonely because it provides instant feedback. We touch screens, we get responses. We talk to Siri, she talks back. As much as a machine might create an output based on the data you feed it, the depth of human experience can't be boiled down to a series of ones and zeroes. Theo's relationship with Samantha is doomed from the beginning because love is not about one person adapting to another. It's about evolving together. Touching also helps.
Honestly, things are more complicated than that in Her, and you really need to see the movie to grasp the nuances of Theo and his relationships, both human and otherwise. That said, you really should see the movie. It's gorgeous. Los Angeles has never looked so towering and tantalizing. The acting is tremendous, and the story is always rich with meaning. I also love how the film's wardrobe manages to create a futuristic feel simply by taking familiar tropes—our everyday objects and clothes—and combining them in completely foreign ways. It gives you the sense that this future is really just a skillful rearrangement of some pieces from today.