Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Her

Science fiction films, it often seems, are the idiot cousin of the genre.  Not that there aren't some excellent SF films out there, but even if you ignore the vast majority, which are actually action or horror films in an SFnal setting, what you'll be left with will be mostly small, simple stories in thinly drawn worlds, often with a thuddingly obvious political subtext.  Again, that's not to say that these films can't be good--Moon, to take one example whose story and world are practically miniscule, is one of the finest SF films of the last decade.  But it's rare, verging on unheard-of, for SF films to achieve the depth and complexity of SFnal ideas and worldbuilding that written SF is capable of, and I think that part of the reason for this is fear.  Most SF filmmakers (or their financial backers) are afraid to imagine a world too different from out own, a future too alien--the most celebrated SF film of the last year, after all, was one that used space exploration as a metaphor for alienation, and ended with humanity effectively barred from space for decades to come.  Spike Jonze's Her isn't the film to buck that trend, but it carries within it the seeds of that film.  Jonze takes the relatively unusual step (in the film medium, at least) of pairing SF with romantic drama, but that potentially refreshing choice turns out to be Her's undoing--not only because the romance it crafts is problematic and unconvincing, but because it obscures the much more interesting SF film that Her could have been, if it were slightly less afraid of the future.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a depressed recent divorcé who is starved for human connection but too emotionally constipated to engage with actual people (for which read women--Theodore's only male friend at the beginning of the film is his best friend's husband, with whom he cuts ties after the two divorce, and though throughout the film he forges a connection with a colleague played by Chris Pratt, this is only after the other man makes several enthusiastic overtures).  When Theodore buys a new handheld phone/computer/personal organizer, it comes with an AI interface (rather infuriatingly referred to, throughout the film, as an operating system) which promises to mold itself to suit Theodore's personality and needs.  The resulting persona, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), is a bubbly, curious, adventurous creature who quickly brings Theodore out of his shell.  Before long, the two become friends, going on day-long excursions in which Samantha can discover the world and Theodore can re-experience it through her eyes.  Soon after that, the relationship turns romantic (and, within certain parameters, sexual), with Theodore and Samantha proudly proclaiming themselves to be dating.

It's difficult to read this plot description and not feel uncomfortable.  Watching the film's trailers, I found myself reminded of (500) Days of Summer, a movie that purported to cut through the commercialized, commodified artificiality of modern romantic comedies, but could only do so by turning its heroine into an unattainable cipher.  Her seems to take that approach to extremes when it imagines a romance in which the female half of the relationship is the male's property, a program designed to not only make his life easier but whose personality was especially fitted for that task.  Add to that Samantha's copious Manic Pixie Dream Girl traits, and it becomes all but impossible to take her romance with Theodore as anything but the logical extension of films like (500) Days, in which women exist solely in order to enable the self-actualization of a schlubby, self-pitying male hero.  (For some more discussion of the problems with Her's conception of romance and of its hero, see Sady Doyle's trenchant takedown of the film.  As the rest of this review will show, I don't agree with all of Doyle's conclusions, but her discussion of Theodore, and of "sensitive," beta male characters of his type, is necessary and important.)

In fairness, Her is clearly aware of the potential for this reading, and tries to head it off through a variety of devices--though these are, invariably, notable more for their good intentions than their success.  When Theodore's ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) finds out about his new relationship, she immediately speaks for doubters like myself, concluding that being with Samantha appeals to Theodore because it doesn't require him to cope with "real emotions."  It's a perspective that desperately needed to be heard, given how strangely non-judgmental everyone else around Theodore is, and the crisis that it precipitates in his and Samantha's relationship is also necessary, finally puncturing his blithe acceptance of the fact that he is dating his PDA.  But the film also tries to undermine Catherine, by depicting her as bitter and having other characters comment on her emotional instability.  (In this quality, Catherine is joined by Thedore's other human love interest, a blind date played by Olivia Wilde; just about the only woman in the film who is not depicted as crazy is Theodore's endlessly supportive best friend Amy (Amy Adams), for whom he feels no sexual attraction.)  Later in the film, Theodore and Samantha make a disastrous attempt at expanding the physical side of their relationship with the help of a surrogate, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), an experiment whose failure sheds a light on the limitations of their relationship.  But this scene also highlights the handwaving that Jonze does where Samantha's sexuality is concerned.  We're told that she orgasms when she and Theodore first have sex (really just dirty talk, and rather tame at that) because their connection somehow makes her feel "her" body.  But as Anna Shechtman, writing at Slate, points out, this is merely an extension of the canard that women's sexuality is emotional while men's is physical.

The real problem, however, with how Her constructs its central romance isn't the multiple question marks surrounding Samantha's ability to freely and meaningfully enter into the relationship.  It's how bland and generic Theodore and Samantha are as a couple.  Her is, by definition, a very talky film--Theodore and Samantha fall in love through words and conversation, not physical attraction--but instead of powering the film and making us feels its characters' emotions, Her's dialogue is painfully nondescript.  Theodore works as a personal letter-writer--sometimes for special occasions such as anniversaries, but also as a regular part of his customers' lives, as in the case of a couple whose love letters he's been writing for nearly a decade.  We're told that these letters are insightful and moving--at one point, Samantha compiles some of them and sends them to a publisher, who is so moved that he offers to put them out as a book.  But when we actually hear Theodore's letters, they sound like what they are, extra-long greeting cards, full of trite turns of phrase and over-exposed sentiments.  (It's interesting that both Her and (500) Days give their heroes jobs writing greeting cards, as if to stress that they are manufacturing sentiment they can't feel; but at least (500) Days acknowledges that the sentiments Tom sells are hollow.)

In much the same way, Theodore and Samantha's conversations, in which they allegedly forge a deep, instant connection, come off as stilted and forced, both of them trying too hard to be friendly and funny without ever saying anything of substance (there is, in fact, very little difference between Theodore and Samantha's conversations and the one he has with Wilde's character on their blind date--in both cases, the characters appear to be working so hard to be agreeable and pleasant that they barely seem to notice the person they're talking to).  Later in the film, as the relationship and its challenges deepen, Theodore and Samantha start to discuss weightier topics.  But despite emerging from such an unusual relationship, these issues are familiar and trite--Theodore is emotionally withholding, Samantha is growing past him.  The discussions never become interesting or compelling because Theodore and Samantha aren't particularly interesting people--like Theodore's letters, they feel like collections of clichés handsomely strung together, not genuinely nuanced characters.

In a way, this is a very SFnal flaw--using characters and relationships as placeholders around which to construct a world or an idea, without bothering to shade them in or strive for complexity.  And if Her's characters are bland in a way that feels typical of SF, its world is nuanced in a way that also seems particularly SFnal.  Jonze takes the Andrew Niccol approach of imagining a future that is sleek, clean, and impeccably designed (and also sadly lacking in people of color), but the technology with which he fills this world, and which his characters use, is more homey and lived in.  Samantha is, after all, a personal organizer, and like her, most of the technology Theodore interacts with is intended for daily human use.  Amy designs computer games (most notably, an appalling creation in which players compete to be a "super-mom" who gets her kids to school first and bakes delicious cookies), and Theodore entertains himself by playing another game, evocatively projected across half his living room.  User interfaces--for the computers Theodore uses at work, for Samantha and other, non-sentient organizers, for the social network on which Theodore looks up his blind date--abound in the film.  They create the texture of a world in which the human relationship with technology is similar to ours, but also changed.  As that texture develops it becomes easier to see Her not as a romance between two people in a unique situation, but as the story of how a new technology changes the definition of romance for all people.  Late in the film we learn, for example, that Theodore and Samantha aren't the only AI/human relationship out there.  Amy is friends with an AI, and a woman in her office is dating one who isn't even hers.

In its final third, Her changes and becomes a much more interesting film--by shedding the unconvincing romance plot of its earlier segments.  Jonze seems to have realized that the only way to prove that the romance between Theodore and Samantha is real is for her to end it, but he does so in a way that reveals that the real story of the film wasn't their love story, but the story of Samantha's (and other AIs like her) emergence and self-discovery as a new lifeform.  If, in the early parts of the film, the differences of experience, age, and legal status between Theodore and Samantha make their relationship seem dubious and creepy (in one particularly disturbing scene, Theodore all but gaslights Samantha, who is worried about their waning sex life, taking advantage of her inexperience by telling her that this is perfectly normal when he knows it isn't) by the end of the film it's clear that Samantha has become something much bigger than Theodore.  In one of the film's most devastating--and, to me, most satisfying--scenes, Theodore realizes that at the same time that he and Samantha have been having intimate, soul-baring conversations, she's also been conversing with thousand of other people, some of whom are also her lovers.  In these final scenes, Her suggests that, far from enabling the petty, narcissistic, isolating urges of the emotionally inept, the technology at its center is expanding the definition of love and relationships.

It's a pity, then, that the first two thirds of Her lack the courage of this final revelation.  That they bury Samantha's emerging consciousness beneath Theodore's neediness and depression, and fail to address the questions, about Samantha's personality and personhood, raised by their relationship.  The rather creepy scene with Isabella the surrogate is retroactively validated when we realize that Samantha has been having meaningful relationships with people other than Theodore--it suddenly becomes more believable that this woman agreed to the experiment of her own free will--but wouldn't it have been more interesting to learn this fact earlier in the film, and explore Isabella's feelings for Samantha, instead of reducing her to a marital aid (not to mention yet another one of the film's crazy women)?  For that matter, wouldn't it have been more interesting, not to mention believable, to face up to the fact that Samantha can love Theodore without gaining sexual satisfaction from him, at least not in the human terms that she uses to describe her sexuality?  Wouldn't it, in short, have been a much more interesting film if, from the get-go, Her had been about Samantha as a new lifeform, not the object of Theodore's affections?

Sticking to the template of a romance means that Her loses sight of the more interesting story happening in its background, and fails to fully explore its premise.  It's a failure that mars the film even in its more successful final act, as when it plumps for the cliché of treating Theodore and Samantha's relationship as a learning experience, something designed to make him a better man--he ends the film composing yet another of his trite, cliché-ridden letters to his ex-wife, in which he wishes her well.  This is clearly intended as a sign that Theodore has grown and matured, but it actually makes him seem smug and self-satisfied--despite its claims to the contrary, his letter to Catherine is designed to show off the fact that he has achieved closure after their divorce, not give that closure to her, and it has the effect of, once again, turning Samantha into the instrument of Theodore's growth, rather than the person he was in love with and has now lost.  Say what you will about (500) Days of Summer, but at least it recognized that the end of a relationship, no matter how inevitable, hurts, and included within its titular timeframe the time necessary for its hero to get over his heartache before gaining wisdom.

Ultimately, Her is neither a successful romance nor the mythical complex, intelligent SF film I yearned for in this review's opening.  That it has enough hints of the latter makes me wish that the romance aspect of the film had been jettisoned (that the romance itself is so problematic, of course, makes me wish this even more).  But the fact that the film was made, and that in its final third it dares to imagine a future in which personhood and love mean something different from what we define them as, gives me some hope.  Perhaps, in some distant point in the future, SF film won't be so terrified of the unfamiliar--and perhaps when we get to that point, filmmakers in general will be able to imagine a romance in which both partners, be they humans or machines, are real people.

6 comments:

Standback said...

I am wondering how much I need to pay to whom, in order for major SF films to be penned, produced, and filmed, run by you for feedback, and then redone from scratch.

Tim Schmidt said...

The budget necessary to adapt a grand SF opera like, say, "Hyperion" or "Foundation" is simply too expensive to make a cerebral film (series) for Science Fiction fans and intellectuals that would be worthy of the source material. Blockbuster budgets are only greenlit for films that appeal to mass audiences. Hollywood is a business and the bean counters call the shots these days. The old studio system that allowed for the occasional passion project like "A Space Odyssey", "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" or "Dune" is long dead and replaced by media conglomerates that answer to shareholders. No one is willing to drop hundreds of millions on a risky project when they could just crank out yet another dumb Transformers or superhero flick with a guaranteed return of investment.

Speaking of "Dune", a couple of years ago another adaption of the film almost came together, but the budget predictions went through the roof as preproduction progressed and no one wanted to fork over the $200 million that director Peter Berg requested to make it happen in style.

Given the box office bombs of somewhat original SF material in recent years - think of "Tron Legacy", "John Carter" and "Ender's Game" - it's no wonder that film adaptions of SF novels with rich world-building are forever stuck in development hell. Speaking of another aforementioned adaption, "Foundation" has been on the fritz since at least a decade. Last I heard Roland Emmerich was attached to adapt it as a duology, but nothing has come of that in recent years.

Even if one of those classic space operas would get the necessary budget some day, there's still a tremendous limitation in the medium of film itsself: How can you reduce the tremendous world-building of the Culture universe, the Foundation, Hyperion's hegemony or the CoDominion universe to a two or even three-hour film adaption without losing the better part of what makes those universes work?

I'd much rather see any of these novels adapted as a TV series by HBO instead. They've certainly done a competent job with "A song of ice and fire" (Game of Thrones). Plus they're known for giving authors full creative control - much unlike Hollywood - and that's a downright necessity if you want a faithful adaption of the source material.

-Peder said...

I disagree with large portions of this review. I *did* find the romance interesting and became emotionally engaged with it. As for it being problematic, aren't most romances problematic in some way as seen from the outside? They're organic and thorny and messy. The review comes off largely as a long way of saying, "I wouldn't have written it this way".
The basic question is 'if we develop artificial intelligence, will they have romantic relationships with us?'. 'Her' explored a reasonable path through this question. It didn't end up where I thought it would, nor obviously where you did either, but so what? The plot developed in a reasonable manner and the audience wasn't overly manipulated to get there. (At least, I didn't feel that way.)
Is Samantha realistic as a personality? I don't know. She was wildly eager to please and naive as to how relationships should go. Was Theodore believable? Certainly. We've all known shy guys, betas as you call them, who have incredible trouble opening themselves up in relationships. This is the story of a broken man and an ignorant computer, trying to figure out relationships. Of course there would be problematic areas!
I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it. I really, really felt an emotional impact from it. I think others will too.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Standback:

Ha! Though really, it is staggering how points of view that seem obvious to us are clearly foreign elsewhere, in particular Hollywood. In her essay Doyle links to reviews of the film (mostly by male reviewers), and it's stunning how few of them even stop to consider the issue that if Samantha is truly a person, then she's a slave and incapable of meaningfully consenting to a relationship with Theodore.

Tim:

I'm not really talking about adaptations of existing properties, though - I don't, in general, feel that every good book must have a film adaptation, and I'm also not entirely on board with the notion that everything would be better as a miniseries on HBO (HBO has made some fantastic series, but also some poor and merely passable ones, and it has certain tics and preoccupations - especially where female characters are concerned - that make me glad that there are other venues for TV out there). A story doesn't have to be as broad as a multi-volume book series to feature complex ideas and worldbuilding. One of the most interesting and courageous SF films I saw last year was the relatively brief Upstream Color, which despite that brevity built a whole SFnal world completely foreign to our own, and though I didn't like it as much, Ari Folman's The Congress was similarly alienating (and also an example of how adapting a written work doesn't have to mean hours upon hours of worldbuidling). As you say, film is its own medium with its own limitations, but that doesn't mean that it's impossible to tell complex SFnal stories within it.

Peder:

aren't most romances problematic in some way as seen from the outside?

If by that you mean that most Hollywood romances tend to treat women as prizes to be won, rather than people in their own right, and tend to ignore issues of consent, and even treat dubious consent as romantic, then yes, most romances are problematic :-)

The fact is, Jonze chose to make Samantha a woman, and then completely ignored the fact that she is effectively a slave. If this is merely in service of telling a story about a "sensitive" man, then it perfectly illustrates the glaring, terrifying blind spot in the way our society views women, even within their own romantic stories.

Tim Schmidt said...

"it has certain tics and preoccupations - especially where female characters are concerned"

Care to elaborate?

Unknown said...

"Jonze takes the relatively unusual step (in the film medium, at least) of pairing SF with romantic drama, but that potentially refreshing choice turns out to be Her's undoing--not only because the romance it crafts is problematic and unconvincing, but because it obscures the much more interesting SF film that Her could have been, if it were slightly less afraid of the future."

I was wondering if you'd seen Michael Winterbottom's Code 46 and what you thought of it. Like most of his films--since he likes to move quickly from one project to the next--it probably needed another couple of drafts to fully develop its thoughts. But I always thought it provided an intriguing view of the future and paired it well with a romance that both takes place and becomes problematic because of that future.

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