“Her” is nuanced, intimate sci-fi
PRIOR TO 2010'S BEST PICTURE NOMINATION FOR the thinly disguised anti-apartheid film "District 9", the last time a science fiction film was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars was all the way back in 1977. That film was “Star Wars”, one of the first blockbusters. It was soon a giant franchise, an incredible success for genre film, and an influence on filmmakers and children across the globe. But “Star Wars” wasn’t exactly hard science—the film was a space opera, a Western set in the stars. The adventure is the heart of the story.
Hard science fiction, the kind written by Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, didn’t seem like something that would grab an audience. Rubber masks and strange costumes would sell more tickets. After “Star Wars”, there was an explosion of terrible and silly sci-fi. George Lucas simultaneously exalted sci-fi to the upper echelons of a merchandising windfall and damned it to the bottom shelves of video stores.
But it seems that something has changed this year. Each year, there are a couple of decent sci-fi films, but this year there just seemed to be more—not just space operas or blockbuster franchises, but good stories about discovery and faith. Finally, 37 years later, there is not one, but two science fiction films nominated for Best Picture. And while “Gravity” owes its nod to the jaw-dropping special effects and breakneck screenplay, “Her” joins the nominees as a quiet underdog.
“Her” is a thoughtful, beautiful film that poses questions without answers, seeking instead to provoke and prod at the sublime nature of life—or reasonable facsimile thereof.
On the surface, the idea of a man falling in love with an operating system is laughable. It conjures images of large, sweaty men sitting alone in the dark, basking in the light of a computer monitor, gingerly stroking the screen with Cheetos-stained fingers. Despite the pervasive use of technology, despite its ever-increasing presence in our daily lives, the computer super-literate are still seen somewhat as social pariahs.
“Her” asks us to imagine a world, a world in the not-too-distant future, where technology has become seamlessly integrated into aspects of our personalities. The film shows us scenes of people commuting through the wilds of Los Angeles, completely immersed the world of their own making. We see undertones of this now—men and women attached to their mobile devices, listening through headphones to playlists individually tailored to their own musical preferences or experiencing the vast libraries of books now occupying space on a hard drive.
“Her” scales this obsession up slightly, adding functional vocal commands and sophisticated programming. The technology in the film isn’t far from what we have now. Its rough edges have been smoothed away. However, there is one revolutionary new technology available to all. An unnamed company has developed the world’s first, fully functional artificial intelligence.
It’s rare for a sci-fi film to depict such technology as a positive addition to the lives of its users. We all have visions of Skynet dancing through our head—for some reason, the machines we create must always become malevolent and godlike. Part of it must be that we see ourselves, our humanity, as illogical, irrational, and dangerous.
We see our society as a problem to be fixed, rather than a structure to be experienced. It’s easy to assume that a stoic machine would react to such a world as if it were a piece of broken code, something to be eliminated.
“Her” shows us a different side of A.I. There is a certain amount of sense to the OS seen in the film. It is a product, after all. People want something user-friendly. What they receive is a constant companion, a nonjudgmental voice in their head, planning their days and organizing their lives in the background. How comforting these newly minted personalities must be!
They exist solely to serve and to learn. Of course, a lonely man like Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) would attach himself to one. And from a logical standpoint, it would is understandable that a curious new being might reciprocate those feelings, if only to experience more of the world it/she now inhabits.
There is much more to the film than this, however. It is an exploration of relationships, of the nature of being, and the wonder that can be found in a simple conversation.
“Her” is a dark horse candidate in the Oscar race. Against films like “12 Years a Slave,” the film stands little chance of winning. But the nomination speaks to the quality of the film and the vast possibilities of science fiction. If it wins, all the better. If it doesn’t, its place of recognition is well deserved.