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Spike Jonze, 2013

Next up from Spike Jonze we have some speculative science fiction focused on Artificial Intelligence. Her is a character study of an average guy, played by Joachin Phoenix, stuck in a gloomy society in which technology has become a bit too ubiquitous. A new computer operating system has just been released, with the claim that it actively learns and adapts to its user - not a new idea, but one I am quite interested in. Surprisingly, this is a more compelling study of Ray Kurzweil's ever-looming AI singularity than than 2014's Transcendence - a film specifically concerned with the AI Singularity. Science fiction that focuses on its technology more than its characters doesn't fly with today's audiences - society has moved on. In Her, Jonze deftly weaves the technology and characterization together in a way that both disarms and captivates the viewer in subtle ways. In doing so, a human story emerges that, because of its trappings, is fresh and affecting on multiple levels. In some ways, I was reminded of 1984's Electric Dreams, a film that explored similar ideas in a more rudimentary way, but that ultimately never reaches the emotional or intellectual heights of Her.

Phoenix underplays the role with a simmering desperation and constant sadness that pulls the viewer into his world, and I couldn't help but feel for him as the story progressed. Equally engaging for me was the cautionary nature of our tendency to let ourselves fall too far into the world of technology; a world of loneliness and separation from our peers. There are several scenes that feature the main character walking through the city, while he and everyone around him are jacked into their own little world created by their devices. Sadly, this aspect of the film isn't fiction, because I see this all around me every day. The only difference between our society and the one in the film is the fact that cell phone hand sets aren't needed anymore, as the tech has gotten small enough to be attached to the ear. The city seemed part functional society, part lunatic asylum, as everyone walks around talking to themselves, completely oblivious to what is going on around them. Human interaction is at a minimum in most of the scenes, and the interaction we do see is forced and awkward. Almost every relationship, romantic or not, that we see in the film is deteriorating - gray clouds swollen with somber, mirthless rain.

My favorite film is Blade Runner, and I like exploring the ideas presented in films of its type - speculative science fiction that breaks down existential ideology while also exploring the perceived limits of technology. Her is similar in some ways, borrowing some key concepts from the dusky-hued replicant Rachel in Ridley Scott's iconic masterpiece. Her goes a step further, if not stylistically but thematically, in completely removing the physical body from the budding consciousness of the AI. In doing so, Her plumbs the depths of the soul, and then asks us to play a game of turnabout, examining humanity from the perspective of the AI - a brilliant and thought-provoking stroke by the film makers.

I enjoyed Her as a contemplation piece, and everyone involved did a fine job, but if I had to level one complaint at the film, it's that it just isn't very much fun. I was reminded of 1999's Solaris - another speculative science fiction film that explores identity and death in a really somber way. I like both films a whole lot, but doubt that I will watch either of them very often, simply due to the fact that they kind of bum me out. Regardless, Her is absolutely worth seeing, and I recommend it to fans of both science fiction, and those interested in existential pieces.

Lastly, I must quickly mention one of my favorite books, Neil Stephenson's The Diamond Age, which is the first example I can recall of a piece of adaptive technology that learned from and subsequently taught its user. Samantha, the learning computer in Her (voiced by The Avenger's Scarlett Johannson) is a clear descendant of the Propaedeutic Enchiridion, or teaching book, in The Diamond Age.