A few weeks ago I started developing my list of 2013's best science fiction film scores. I sent out a tweet asking for recommendations and got these responses:
I didn't know anything about Her. A quick Google search revealed it's the new film from Spike Jonze. I love his previous work, especially Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are. I still get emotional thinking about those movies. I also trust Aaron's and Andrea's opinions. If they both recommended Her, I needed to see it.
I’m glad I did. Her is without exception the best science fiction film of 2013 for 3 simple reasons – it’s set in a familiar world, has piercing social commentary, and is built on real findings from psychology.
A Familiar World
Her is set in a near future Los Angeles where technology is everywhere. But unlike many futuristic films, you don't have to suspend your disbelief too much. Her just extends from where we are right now – Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly uses Siri-like voice recognition to interact with his smartphone; apps anticipate his needs much like Google Now; and he spends his evenings playing Xbox Kinetic-style video games.
The science fiction begins when Theodore purchases OS1 – the world's first artificial intelligence. Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, evolves from being Theodore's AI personal assistant into a companion and then something else.
Piercing Social Commentary
I was deeply affected by this film. It felt like Jonze made Her specifically to comment on the way I was living my life. The film speaks not only to our comfort with technology but also the reality of living in a world where you can immediately connect with anyone (or anything).
The New Yorker's Richard Brody dismisses the film's social commentary as "a cautionary tale that offers warning where none is needed, a diffuse and sentimental admonition to put the smartphone down, push away from the computer, turn off the TV, unplug the game controller, and connect with people." That's not what Her is about. Jonze forces us to question what happens when we can simultaneously connect with the people near us and others who are far away.
Humans have never been able to do this in the way we can now. It’s something all of us encounter each time we’re sitting with loved ones and continue to receive text messages and social media alerts. We can't just put our smartphones away – it's too late for that and technology is becoming even more integrated into our lives (e.g. Google Glass).
Technology is interacting with our psychology in interesting ways. It's likely that we no longer memorize information that can be easily found on the internet. What's most important in the 21st century is remembering where to find information (Google) and knowing how to analyze what you find (determining the legitimacy of sources). We see this throughout Her, mainly in how dependent Theodore is on Samantha to remember everything he needs to get done during the day.
Samantha is a metaphor for social media. There’s a lot of interest in how social media is impacting psychology. Some believe that people act differently online and exaggerate their best qualities. One study concluded that how we act on Facebook is similar to how we respond to a personality test (e.g. extroverted people on a test were extroverted on Facebook). Another study found similar results. The most striking finding came from a study of 58,000 participants. Researchers were able to use Facebook profiles to accurately predict political views, intelligence, and even sexual orientation. Sure, Facebook might not be the most realistic social situation since it’s biased towards only sharing positive stuff, but the growing consensus is online behavior is similar to offline behavior. This helps us understand why it’s easy for Theodore to be himself with Samantha – we act like ourselves in a variety of situations, even if the social experience is based in technology. Sometimes the lack of eye contact on the internet might lead to “crazy online troll behavior”, but for the most part we’re the same people on and offline.
Samantha is also built in a way that makes it easy for humans to interact with it. Masahiro Mori, a pioneer in the field of robotics, discovered something called the uncanny valley – a feeling of disgust when robots get close to human appearance but fail to achieve it. Remember the creepy feeling you got when you watched the CGI Tom Hanks in The Polar Express? That’s the uncanny valley. Why do we experience this? Probably to protect us from illnesses that can come from corpses (which is why zombies are so scary). Even though there is some debate about the degree to which the uncanny valley still exists, most engineers have followed Mori’s original advice – avoid the uncanny valley altogether and go for non-humanoid designs.That’s why Samantha doesn’t have a human avatar face. Same is true for Siri and Google Now – both avoid the uncanny valley.
I see a big market for a product like OS1. Regardless of where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, the brain is wired for social interaction. Social psychologist Matthew Lieberman describes it like this: “Evolution has made a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms.” That's one reason why interacting with others is so rewarding and why we keep responding to texts and checking Facebook. Not only is engaging in social interaction important, but feeling isolated has major consequences for our health. People who are struggling with loneliness feel threatened for long periods of time, which triggers the flight or fight system and shuts down the immune system. Loneliness can lead to depressive symptoms, increased blood pressure, longer recovery from diseases, and even mortality. An artificial intelligence like we see in Her could help people with loneliness learn how to better interact with others (sorta like what happens to Theodore). It could also help astronauts, similar to Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey (except not scary).
My only criticism of the film (besides the fact that future LA has lost all of its Latino community) is Her doesn’t deal with any of the societal implications of true artificial intelligence. Intelligence explosion begins – humans create software that can independently develop new generations of improved software. The technological singularity occurs and artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence. Scientists and science fiction authors have both theorized that a singularity event could be one of the most important events in human history. But in Her, nothing happens. No one’s celebrating the achievement of OS1, protesting its release, or debating the ethics of creating sentient artificial life. Maybe Jonze believes we're so desensitized to technology that the development of artificial intelligence will be as expected as the release of a new iPhone, or perhaps he just wanted to tell a more intimate story.
I saw a lot of science fiction movies in 2013. Most were fun, some thought-provoking, but none as approachable, relevant, and psychologically complex as Her. The acting, score, cinematography, and direction are as close to flawless as you can get. There's much more I want to say about Her, especially how it relates to the psychology of love, but I need to see it again because I'm still sitting with the emotions it generated on my first viewing.
I like what AV Club had to say about Her and also enjoyed The Atlantic’s breakdown of the film’s aesthetics. Slate was right on with their criticisms. The Mary Sue has an interesting critique of the Samantha's gender.