Her (2013)

(On Cable TV, October 2014) Ask me about the ideal qualities of a Science Fiction movie and I’m now more likely to focus on such qualities as ideas, verisimilitude and the impact of progress on people rather than the special effects, action sequences and big bold visions of the future that initially drew me to the genre.  Her is practically a case study of those qualities: It’s a low-key but satisfying exploration of a basic SF idea: What if someone fell in love with an artificial intelligence?  Writer/Director Spike Jones couches his romantic drama in grounded terms: “Artificial intelligence” is eschewed in favour of “Operating System”, his character inhabit a world not terribly different from ours (although the way his future Los Angeles is clean, built up with a fantastic public transit system may be more science-fictional than a fully-functional AI) and the technology is an invisible part of the background rather than a showy set-piece.  Joaquin Phoenix is terrific as the mopey loner protagonist, while Scarlett Johanssen brings a strong presence to an audio-only role. (From the moment her voice cracks, we’re onboard with her OS being a real character.) But the real richness of the film is in the ideas it tackles, and those that it alludes to: While the film focuses on a thorny disembodied love story, it’s also set (through a few efficient dialog fragments) against a background of an AI-led singularity event, one that ultimately has deep consequences for the world as much as the protagonist.  This is a lovely use of SF Big Ideas, and Her‘s focus ultimately serves it well, both at populating the richness of the central story, but also at hinting at something much bigger going on elsewhere.  There are unique scenes and sequences in this film that have never been seen elsewhere so far (including a pair of love scenes that feel genuinely new), in support of a film that’s as interesting a take on social commentary as any “issues” film.  It’s easy to be enthusiastic about the film: trying to pick apart the themes alone is enough to keep anyone occupied for a while.  (All the way to the hoary “what is love, but a reflection of ourselves?”) Her may be best appreciated in retrospect: the film itself is deceptively simple on a scene-to-scene basis, but it becomes more interesting once you’ve had the chance to think about it for a while.  At last, a film that is unapologetically science-fictional, and should please both audiences that don’t like SF as well as jaded SF fans.  For once, I’m frustrated by my one-paragraph “capsule” movie review style, because I feel there’s a lot more to be said about the Her than can fit comfortably here in the margins.

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