“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.”
Originally published on Medium.
"A lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with his newly purchased operating system that's designed to meet his every need." It’s such an unassuming and almost goofy description and it’s a credit to writer and director Spike Jonze that he elevated the story to such heights. Her is a brilliant film. Among its brilliance is that it speaks to the past, present, and future in a confident way.
Many films would fall into the trap of making the technology the story. That would be a goofy or unnecessarily dense movie. Instead, Her does what great science fiction films do and it just assumes everything makes sense. Everyone in the world accepts the technology because that’s the way it is. It just works. Compare that to today’s world and maybe it’s not such an unbelievable premise.
Think about how this would look to someone who died in 1950: I take a small device made of glass and aluminum out of my pocket and instantly send a letter to a friend on the other side of the planet.
In storytelling, when you present something as a given and just keep moving forward, it engages the audience. Time isn’t wasted trying to decipher how something works or poking holes in its logic. A lesser filmmaker may have fallen victim to this ego, wanting to show off the cool theory and ideas. It would have been caught up in showing code on a computer monitor or making the main character an unlikable nerd because, of course, those are the only people who like technology. In truth, everyone uses technology in their own personal way. And only coders care about code, everyone else just wants technology that works. Spike Jonze understands that.
If Her opened with an info dump that said, “The year is 2029 and we’re in Los Angeles,” suddenly the viewer is making a whole lot of assumptions and attempted connections at the logic. Will technology look or act like that in 15 years? Or worse, when you watch this movie in 2029, will it look comically outdated, or will it mostly hold up like Blade Runner or Alien?
It also makes bold, and probably accurate, statements about work life in the near future. Everyone either works with computers or is an artist (working with computers). The film doesn’t get caught up on whether or not that’s good or bad, it just is. Her drips with subtext, but none of it assumes anything about anyone.
Her explores love and feelings in a way that’s satisfying and profound without being convoluted or sappy. Two words you’d be hard pressed to define are woven through the characters, specifically Theodore, Samantha, and Amy—all played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams, respectively. It makes you feel for something that doesn’t exist. Or does it exist? Samantha points out that we’re all just matter, after all. We come, we go. We’re together, we’re alone.
Her raises a lot of questions about today’s world and our near future. It shows its main character, Theodore, navigating those choices but it doesn’t explicitly explain all the answers. Even when he asks his OS an unanswerable question, she simply responds that it would be difficult to explain. Sometimes the answer doesn’t have to be a binary yes or no.
What if Samantha wasn’t artificial intelligence? What if she was a virtual assistant that spent her days in a cubicle? Would that make their love any more or less real? Machines may never be able to feel, but artificial intelligence may be able to understand feeling. What is that world? Is it good or bad? Does it have to be either?
“We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.” — Amy