The thing that immediately came to mind after I finished watching this film was that it’s the flipside of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”.* In the episode a woman’s husband is killed unexpectedly in a car accident. She finds out there’s a service where she can get a nearly exact replica of him, composite based on a complex analysis of all his online activity. She eventually becomes frustrated with the ways in which this replica isn’t like her dead husband and he ironically simply becomes a reminder she can never actually get her husband back. After some screaming and crying she leaves the replica in the attic most of the time the way I imagine most people discarded their Furbies.
In Her, director Spike Jonze has a much warmer though perhaps even more sinister vision of technology as a form of/replacement for social engagement. Charlie Brooker’s vision in “Be Right Back” is dystopic; the product fails to function and can’t fulfill it’s promise, the dark underbelly of what Morozov calls “solutionism”. Jonze poses the opposite question-what if the technology actually worked? What if AI could produce the woman of your dreams, perfect in every way except that she doesn’t have a body? What if the lack of a body was the appeal?
As in every science fiction film dealing with technological reproductions of people, issues of what defines humanity and of transmigration come up; while the film seems to be about technology it’s wary of giving the same warnings endemic to most parables regarding the emotional attachment to and pshychological or physical anthropomorphizing of one’s toys, and what comes out instead is something oddly tender and as such even more intensely disturbing than the sort of heavy handed moralizing usually employed by such works. Jonze learned the negative lesson of his colleague Charlie Kaufman’s work and it shows in his script for this, correcting many of the problems that mar Kaufman’s work before Synechdoche NY. While the ephemeral details of the world are uniformly clever they aren’t made clever simply to produce a sense of disorientation. The film settles on only taking on the subjectivity of Joaquin Phoenix’s character directly (granting him flashbacks and especially when he goes on the blind date and the behavior/tone of his date changes so rapidly and unexpectedly). Jonze understands images should contribute toward the development of themes even if he has no responsibility as the artist to resolve these themes.
The use of flashbacks in the film are a revelation; they aren’t systematized or dramatized in the way such things were in utter drek like Inception or misguided experiments like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
A veritable postmodernist’s picnic, we’re surrounded at every turn in Her by surrogates, supplements, surrogates of surrogates, supplements of supplements, the only consistent reality the possibility of abandonment, the abandonment effective even when the thing or person doing the abandoning might be questionably so. Phoenix’s collection of love letters written for strangers is the film wryly commenting on itself; it’s accepted to accolades as capturing the sense of a feeling even if the circumstances are false.
The best film of 2013 I’ve seen so far.
*Black Mirror is probably the best thing currently on television and I plan on doing episode by episode reviews here at some point in the near future.