Human beings love technology. We walk down the street, cradling a smartphone in our hands as if it’s a baby squirrel. When we can’t find our phone, we feel panicky, abandoned, exposed. And we’re increasingly encouraged to think this way. Consider those recent Apple (AAPL) ads: “Until every thing we touch enhances each life it touches.” But so far, that adoration is unrequited. Her, a thought-provoking film written and directed by Spike Jonze, opening in limited release on Dec. 18, asks a simple question: What if technology loved you back?
Most movies botch tech in one of two ways: They either go way too far into the future, turning it into fantasy, or they just plain get it wrong. There’s no Google (GOOG) customer-service number, even if there is one in The Internship; satellite trucks don’t use ISDN lines, Tony Stark. Oh, and while we’re at it, you can’t dial a satellite phone indoors, World War Z people.
So the first refreshing thing about Her is how plausible it seems. The movie is set in a vaguely futuristic version of Los Angeles, but everything is familiar, if slightly altered. People still work at desks with computers, but there aren’t any cars—everyone gets around L.A. on an exceedingly well-designed mass-transit system.
One of those commuters is Ted Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), an almost-terminally mopey guy who’s still reeling from the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara). Sad-eyed and prone to playing melancholy songs over his earphones, Ted works at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, where customers can outsource their correspondence to expert letter writers. Ted is talented at manufacturing love and affection for others, even if his own life is soul-crushingly lonely.
That all changes when he gets OS 1, the world’s first artificial-intelligence operating system. Ted buys Samantha, who is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Samantha is smart, self-aware, funny, and very sensitive to his moods and needs. She’s an ideal companion, except for that she’s a program. And we know exactly where this is headed.
A quick side note: Johansson is moving in this role—arguably better than in a lot of movies where we get to see her—but we all know that the voice is connected to a famous winner in the genetic lottery. (The part was originally played by British actor Samantha Morton, who was cut from the film after it was shot.) Would Samantha be as, well, sexy—and make no mistake, key scenes in the movie have some surprisingly hot man-on-OS action—if she were voiced by an unknown or even Judi Dench?
Her is an amazing dramatization of the Turing Test, a key artificial-intelligence benchmark. In that experiment, a person is asked to carry on chats via computer with a human being in one room and a computer program designed to interact with people in another. If the person cannot tell which conversation is with the human, the program passes the test.
Jonze’s film takes that concept and runs with it beautifully. We all interact with our devices on a deeply personal level; in Her, the idea that someone could fall in love with an OS is accepted. People develop friendships with them and romantic relationships. Issues of fidelity even arise. If you couldn’t tell the difference between a program and a person, would any of those feelings be any less real?
Samantha is clearly learning and changing as she spends time with Ted. She speaks frequently of how she’s getting to be more and more herself from the moment she was first turned on. That rings true—programs do get more attuned to our needs the more we use them—but that evolution happens with people, too. And this is where Jonze’s movie goes past clever and becomes real, and maybe even profound. Her is dominated by the story of Ted and Samantha, but as important is the second plotline of Ted and Catherine’s divorce. It too is an instance of two people growing and changing.
In the case of Samantha, that process, like most things on silicon, is accelerated. Among humans it’s slower, sometimes messier, and harder to detect. The greatness of Her is not that it’s a story about relationships that explains technology; it’s that it’s a story about technology that explains relationships.