Yes, I’m an e-commerce consultant, not a film critic. But, occasionally a film comes out that raises some of the bigger issues that we face when it comes to digitization and technology. When that happens, I indulge myself – especially when the film is as enjoyable as this one.
Remember HAL, the conversant and creepy computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or “Computer”, the central nervous system of the Star Trek Enterprise? While Computer lacked the personality of HAL, it catered to every whim of the crew, from whipping up midnight snacks to providing the ship’s vital stats with warp speed efficiency. Then there’s Commander Data, a Stark Trek Next Generation computer that walks, talks and acts like a human being, but is conveniently void of pesky emotions. Closer to real life, today we have Watson, the IBM supercomputer that won a Jeopardy match against humans (If you haven’t watched the Watson Jeopardy episodes, you can catch them on YouTube), and Siri, the iPhone personal assistant that tells jokes with celebrities in Apple ads and lets us know that we have a busy day ahead.
Call me a geek, but I’ve always been fascinated by this stuff. In the relatively short time that most of us have been working adults, we’ve willingly and enthusiastically accepted the encroachment of technologies that have altered the way that we work,communicate and relate to other people. But, what I find just as fascinating is the evolution of how we interact with the technology devices themselves.
If I can talk to my smartphone or computer and have it transcribe and send messages, set appointments and remind me to buy cat food (which I can), if I can tell Google to find the location of the nearest dry cleaner with words instead of keystrokes (which I can), if I can tell my glasses to look up information or take a picture (which some lucky Google Glass wearers can), do I not become all the more dependent on and interconnected with the technology I use? And as technology interfaces become more conversational, responsive and human, what happens then? At what point do I have a “relationship” with my technology, and at what point is that a little weird?
So much of what technology brings to us is fun, helpful and good. But the dark side is too rarely contemplated, either out of fear, apathy, or more likely, our stronger enthusiasm for the benefits than the risks of technology dependence. Then, there’s the issue of realism. While sci-fi like Star Trek is enjoyable, we can’t really relate.
Fortunately, there’s a gem of a new movie that helps us explore some of these issues in ways that we can relate to. Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix, is the funny, thoughtful story of Theodore, a lonely man who unexpectedly falls in love with his new computer operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson is Samantha’s voice). The film hits the mark in a number of important ways:
It’s set in the future, but not too far in the future. We’re not there yet, but it’s easy enough to see how we could be. In the future world of Her, communication with one’s operating system takes place via a discreet in-ear device and a sleek pocket sized unit. Video games are projected via life sized 3-D holograms. Apparel fashion trends are a lot like what we see today, other than an odd preference for men’s high waisted pants hitched up a bit too high. It’s much more real than deep dark sci-fi, and we can actually see ourselves living in this world.
The story is unlikely, but not at all unbelievable. The funny moments in the movie (and there are many) get laughs not for their outlandishness, but more for their slight modifications on the way things are today. Yes, it would be really awkward to introduce your operating system to your friends or take her on a double date, but some people check their smartphones on dates so much that you already feel like the phone is an invited guest. Yes, it’s odd to see people sitting on the train or walking down the street talking to their operating systems instead of other people, but that’s already a fairly common occurrence, what with voice texting and Siri commands taking place all around us. When Theodore admits to his friends that the girl he’s seeing is an OS, it’s played in a way reminiscent of a gay character coming out; the news is received more with curious enthusiasm than incredulity or disdain.
The film is more about being human than it is about being a computer that sounds and acts like a human. While Samantha the OS is a fascinating character in her (its?) own right and the relationship she has with Theodore is charming, the story really belongs to Theodore. His journey to bring closure to a broken marriage and build friendships beyond Samantha is what holds us. Samantha is ideal in so many ways: always there for him, never complaining, anticipating his needs, laughing at his jokes, organizing his life; but she’s far less than ideal in other ways, physicality (or lack thereof) being the most obvious. The exploration of what it is to be human, and all of the complexities and shortcomings that come with it are best understood when contrasted with the perfect but imperfect Samantha.
The visual aspects of the film are gorgeous; you can’t help but want to live in this world of beautiful views, pleasing colors, slick technology. It’s seductive. Just like all of those computers, smartphones, tablets and video games that we can’t live without. Despite the somewhat dark implications of Her, we can’t help but seduced by the good and only want more.
One final note – you’ll probably want to leave the young kids at home for this one. As Theodore and Samantha explore their relationship, the barriers of physical intimacy are, as you’d expect, an area of focus at times. That’s all I’ll reveal in the interest of good taste. Enjoy the show.