Spike Jonze is that rare creature, a filmmaker who is not only interested in but can actually combine the emotional and the intellectual. He did fantastic work with Charlie Kaufman (and indeed his elusive twin brother, Donald), and I greatly liked his adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, though I have to confess that I never read the book as a kid and have no loyalties to the original work. His most recent film, Her (described by Wikipedia as a “science fiction romantic comedy-drama”, that most perennial of genres), was successful with audiences and critics alike, and there is a lot to like about the film. It is smart, sweet and heartfelt.
It should have been the perfect film for me – yet it wasn’t. In part, that’s due to my inflated expectations; largely, though, it’s Charlie Brooker’s fault. Obviously. More precisely, I think I had his “Be Right Back” from the second series of Black Mirror in mind, where a dead spouse is imitated by an artificial intelligence. The comparison is not an entirely fair one: Jonze is telling a different story from Brooker, and his story about a man falling in love with his AI operating system wants to be romantic to begin with, something “Be Right Back” isn’t interested in being.
The thing is this: I can accept the premise of a sentient, sapient AI with emergent feelings. I can buy a man, especially a lonely, depressed one, falling for his very personable operating system, especially if it’s voiced by Scarlett Johannson. However, in wanting to deal with this scenario in terms of romance, the film seems to ignore one thing: an operating system is a tool. It does what you tell it to do. This is not a relationship of equals, at least not to begin with – it’s a relationship where he can tell her what to do and she does it, and most likely he can switch her off or deinstall her if he wishes. She exists solely for him. I absolutely understand that Theo Twombly, more than ably played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his OS, Sam, and he’s nice and sweet in his interactions with her – but I have a problem with the film ignoring, or not recognising, the fundamental inequality of the relationship and the hints of Pygmalion, because to my mind these are inherent in the premise.
The film could easily work with this and still tell the same story. As Her develops, so does she – Sam, being a virtual being not only capable of evolving but predicated on it, outgrows Theo and moves on. I wouldn’t even need the gender dimension to be brought into it (although there are definitely gender-related questions to ask about the film, such as: why do all its nebbish male characters tend to be with more beautiful women? To what extent is Her an unacknowledged male geek fantasy?), but the way that Jonze ignores the digital elephant in the room, that to begin with Sam is entirely in Theo’s power, regardless of how much she’s supposed to be her own person, is an issue that kept me from fully engaging with the film. It’s almost as if Jonze was too much in love with his premise and ironically ended up idealising it too much – unless there’s a more self-aware subtext here that was intended all along, which might mean that my own private OS is in dire need of an upgrade, let alone of evolving.