Most people have encountered the soothing, faintly robotic female tones that an increasing range of phones and operating systems come with as standard – along with the capacity to respond to some basic verbal user enquiries. They’re largely at their best when it comes to answering comedy questions (‘What does the fox say?’ ‘How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?’) but generally useless when it comes to actually making intelligent conversation. But what if your computer really understood you, better than anyone else on the planet? What if it became a constant companion, capable of the sort of engagingly intelligent, funny conversation all too hard to find out in the real world? These compelling ideas (and their inevitable pitfalls) are explored in Spike Jonze’s original, thoughtful and emotionally engaging new film Her.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man who spends every day of his life being a surrogate for other people’s emotions. He sits at his desk writing exquisitely heartfelt letters for strangers who them to their loved ones and pay Theodore for the service. Yet ironically while expressing feelings is what he does for a living, in his private life the breakdown of his marriage has left him alienated, lonely and unable to move forwards. Enter Samantha – an artificially intelligent Siri-esque computer operating system (huskily voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that becomes sentient, in the process charming the pants off Theodore and falling in love with him.
Jonze’s success is in creating a world to which the audience can relate, it’s clearly more advanced but only incrementally. We can immediately recognise that technology being used is a logical development and perfection of the very same tech we already use every day. The sense of familiarity about this future world opens us up philosophically to the broader questions that the film seeks to discuss. What is love? Is our technologically saturated world alienating us from genuine human connection? Can you truly love and be loved back by a computer?
Theodore’s best friend Amy (played by Amy Adams, who looks startlingly like a ‘Days of Thunder’ era Nicole Kidman) goes some way to suggesting that maybe we get too caught up in the details, “You know what, I can over think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself … I’ve just come to realize that, we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I wanna allow myself joy. So f–k it.” It’s hard to deny that she makes a powerful case.
But the film isn’t all serious – the story is told with a light comic touch giving us some genuinely funny moments – Kristen Wiig’s cameo as a cyber sex partner who wants to be strangled by a dead cat is brilliant, as is Theodore’s double date with friends where he brings his virtual girlfriend along for a day of sailing and picnicking.
Of all the technological and social advances forecast in Her I can’t help but feeling that the one thing I hope never comes to fruition are the hideous high-waisted pants that Jonze would have us believe are in vogue in the near future. But I guess when your girlfriend is a computer it doesn’t really matter what you wear.