There’s an old and tired joke/observation that we’re all guilty of having made at least once. It goes something like “In the ’50s, we were promised teleportation and hovercars and robot butlers! Why hasn’t that happened yet?” This vision of a sprawling, urban science fiction world filled with flying cars and androids has been our go-to vision of the future for going on 70 years. Even darker science fiction movies like Blade Runner and Minority Report appropriate these basic building blocks, changing the pain but not the actual content.
What’s truly remarkable about Spike Jonze’s Her is that it’s a film about a science fiction near future that flat-out rejects our typical image of the future while quietly making the case that we’re closer to that idealized ’50s sci-fi landscape than we realize. After all, who needs teleportation when you have the Internet, giving you access to anything and everything in a few clicks? More importantly, do we really need robotic companions when we have smartphones, apps and operating systems taking care of most of our needs already?
In Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) downloads a new operating system for computer and mobile devices. Advertised as the first sentient OS whose artificial intelligence will grow and learn to meet his every need, “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson) soon turns out to be far more than a program. Theodore falls in love with his personalized OS and Samantha falls in love with him, too.
Although Her deliberately spends more time focusing on the nature of relationships than it does its subtle science fiction world and the ideas within, the basic setup should be familiar to anyone with an interest in the genre. Sci-fi authors have been writing about mankind’s evolving relationship with technology for as long as the genre’s been around and many have dedicated entire series to robots, artificial intelligence and their place in a world run by their mortal, limited creators. Despite Her sidestepping actual science, it’s a movie that would make Isaac Asimov proud. It’s a “robot” story where the robot has been replaced with something that we all know and understand. Whether we like it or acknowledge it, we all have a connection to our iPhone and our laptops. It’s hard to imagine living without them, so the thought of them being sentient beings that are built to make us happy is, well, palatable and realistic.
Unlike the dystopic, rain-soaked world of Blade Runner, the Los Angeles of Her looks a lot like the current version. Sure, there are enough little details to make this near-future world look like tomorrow instead of today, but this is the rare science fiction film that acknowledges that we’re not heading for a major cataclysm and that we’re not about to live in the sky, Jetsons-style. It’ll be different, but overall, it’s pretty much going to be the same place, just with less books and more holographic 3D projection in our living rooms. But like all future worlds, there’s trouble in paradise. But this trouble isn’t a violent robot uprising. It isn’t aliens. It’s something that should be familiar to anyone with a pulse: crippling, painful loneliness.
The Internet has done a good job of allowing the lonely to congregate, with many people managing to shrug off their isolation and embrace their “forever alone” status with memes and jokes. But we’re not meant to be alone. Humans are social animals and we desire companionship. We desire love. We want to know that somewhere out there is the perfect person for us, someone who will make our life complete. According to Her, there is no grand apocalypse around the corner — our personal lives are already our own personal end-of-the-world scenarios and the only way to survive is to find people that you care about.
Her intentionally never casts judgment against Theodore and Samantha, letting us make up our minds as to whether or not she’s exactly what he needs or a distraction from his real problems. The movie treats their courtship and relationship like it would any typical romance letting the highs and lows feel painfully real. When Her does take the occasional sidestep into hard sci-fi, it’s almost startling. Why is this beautiful movie about love, growing together and growing apart going genre on us?
And that’s why Her is a masterpiece and the best science fiction movie of the year. Its impossible concept takes tropes as old as the genre and reprograms them until they hurt. This astonishing, achingly beautiful and all-too-true movie is, at the end of day, still about a man and his robot, living in a future with limitless possibilities but countless barriers. It may be the best film of 2013, but it’s forever indebted to the classics of science fiction… and to the personal pain that we’ve all endured, only so we can emerge stronger in the end.
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