Ray Kurzweil, in The Age of Spiritual Machines, wrote that the creation of artificial intelligence would usher in mankind’s glorious next chapter. James Barrat, in Our Final Invention, countered that the creation of artificial intelligence will more than likely lead to our speedy and ignominious demise. Spike Jonze, in Her, suggests that nothing will change and AI is just going to leave us, like everyone else we’ve ever loved.
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) works for BeautifulHandWrittenLetters.com, a company that composes, prints, and mails old-fashioned notes for those who want a personal touch in their correspondence—a faux-personal touch, really, since letter-commissioner and letter-writer aren’t the same person.
Theodore revels in the simulacrum of intimacy his job provides because he is in the midst of divorcing his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Depressed and alone, he decides to check out the hot new thing: operating systems imbued with artificial intelligence that can help organize his life. After a series of questions aimed at ascertaining Theodore’s mental state—how he feels about his mother, is he social or introverted, etc.—Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson) springs to life.
"Life" is an intriguing word to use here. Because once she gets done cleaning out his email inbox and setting his calendar in order, the non-corporeal AI begins to experience what it means to be alive: the duo visit beaches and carnivals, discuss their fears and desires, experience emotions. Their relationship grows so organically one almost forgets that Theodore is dating a computer program. Their awkward attempts at intimacy quickly bring us back to the reality of the situation, however.
As Samantha becomes more desperate to experience the world, she begins to transcend her humble origins as a glorified secretary. She can carry on dozens—hundreds—of conversations at once. She and some other AIs meet up in the cloud to give birth to AIs of their own based on human philosophers that died years before. As Samantha’s world expands, she and Theodore grow further apart. The unlucky in love will be just as unlucky with computers as they are with humans, it seems.
Jonze, who wrote and directed Her, has made a career out of examining emotional alienation. His protagonists are stunted, and unable to connect with prospective loved ones. There is a deep longing within each of them, be they a frustrated puppeteer (Being John Malkovich), a screenwriter whose hack twin gets on with people in a way he cannot comprehend (Adaptation), or a monster who doesn’t grok why his girlfriend broke up with him (Where the Wild Things Are).
In Her, the sense of alienation extends to virtually all of society. In almost every scene with a group of people, every extra is plugged in to devices that isolate him from the crowd. Headphones in, eyes on the screen, it’s something that anyone who has ridden a crowded bus will be familiar with. But when everyone is alienated, what does it mean to be lonely?
Jonze’s film is a quietly unsettling and impressive accomplishment, one that makes us really believe that the two protagonists are in love despite the fact that they can never truly be together. Perhaps more importantly, it succeeds in getting us to question what "together" truly means.
As the year draws to a close, we should take a moment to acknowledge the efforts of Megan Ellison, the producer of Her and two other films (American Hustle and Spring Breakers) that cracked my top ten. Ellison, the founder and funder of Annapurna Pictures, has used a portion of her father’s fortune to invest in films and filmmakers. She has helped bring Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, and True Grit, among other high-profile pictures, to the big screen.
A cinephile first and a businesswoman second, Ellison is something like the patron of the auteur theory, handing out relatively large sums of money to filmmakers she appreciates. She has good taste, buckets of money, and little fear—a tremendous combination of attributes that have given the mainstream film industry a spark it has lacked for some time. I get a bit more excited for any film that flashes the Annapurna logo during the opening credits.
We don’t often pay much attention to the work of producers. (Indeed, many aren’t even sure what a "producer" does; check out Art Linson’s book What Just Happened? if you’re curious.) Frequently, when we do discuss them it’s because they’re either acting boorishly or doing damage to a filmmaker’s vision (see: Weinstein, Harvey). In the case of Ellison, however, we have been given a great gift. I know critics appreciate her efforts. I hope the average filmgoer does as well.