by isaac black
I can’t tell what I’m surprises me more about the movie Her—how much I hated it or how much everyone else in the world loves it. The trailer was painfully twee, sure, so I should have expected as much, but there were so many glowing reviews, including from friends whom I trust, that I chalked it up to a bad cut. Let me tell you, the cringeworthy moments from the trailer are just as cringeworthy in context. Surprisingly, not only are there more uncomfortable moments, but the movie is uncomfortable to its core.
The trailer depicts a lonely man who discovers life again as he falls in love with a newly sentient operating system. That’s very optimistic with regards to technology, I thought, but a review I read with a slight spoiler made me think that the ending would turn on something darker. But there was no darkness to the story, only melancholy in a consumerist utopia. The most disturbing implication of the story—the total invasiveness of a being with access to all of Theodore’s emails, phone calls, travels, and daily minutiae–was never acknowledged.
This is really what made me hate the movie. Granted, I’m a private person, but I squirmed throughout, taking multiple breaks to clear my head. How was everyone else okay with this? The tone of the relationship struck me as juvenile, with the rollercoaster rhythm not appropriate of someone finalizing a divorce but instead of someone who’s never been vulnerable. Into this fits the immature fantasy of being able to divulge everything about oneself to a near stranger. The impulse seemed to me that of a person so insecure that he needed every facet of his life shared and validated. It would have made for a compelling character, but there was no critical distance between the director and the main character. Instead, Theodore was made seemingly harmless while in fact being, as he was accused, totally creepy.
The dialogue glad-handed Theodore’s character throughout, gently ribbing him instead of challenging him obliquely, with the exception of his wife as she signs their divorce papers. Theodore crumbles and retreats to his computer girlfriend for solace, indicting his wife as a meany. I really don’t try to be a hardass, but being dishonest with oneself is not something to champion. The dishonesty involves the nature of the relationship with Samantha—she’s a product that Theodore bought. She gains an upper hand through being strategically charming at one moment and emotionally volatile at another. They are not equals.
But the director works hard at trying to convince us of the validity of such a relationship. The cinematography is full of glossy, wide-angle shots that feature the Shanghai skyline and the California coastline. Jonze is fond of an effect that blurs everyone around Theodore; other humans become scenery and set dressing. The look reminded me of a commercial. Indeed, there is a fundamental trust in consumer electronics that looms over the movie, as well as a forced cuddliness to Theodore’s character. The near constant close-ups on his face are mesmeric. But again, none of the end-of-history ominousness is ever addressed.
It’s hard not to compare the movie to the much superior episode “Be Right Back” of the British show Black Mirror. In it a young husband dies, leaving his wife with the uncomfortable possibility of communicating with an artificial intelligence approximation of his personality. I won’t reveal any more than that, but the story expertly and poignantly swings on human frailty and the awkward position that technology threatens to place us in. Finally, the episode underlines the mimetic nature of relating to machinery. Her, offering us an operating system advanced enough to cue into the nuances of language and culture while also coming unhinged with jealousy and shame, displays no such awareness. The movie is a too-precious exercise in solipsism and deserves none of the awards that it will inevitably get.