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A Siri-ous look at life with technology

POSTED: January 2, 2014 1:30 a.m.

Writer/director Spike Jonze is known for living in his own zip code. His films ("Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation," "Where the Wild Things Are") and music videos combine a childlike yet intellectually curious imagination.

Like his frequent collaborator, Charlie Kaufmann, Jonze enjoys blurring the lines between art and the process of creating it.

With "Her," Jonze eschews his more playful tendencies to relate an unconventional, moving love story that examines our increasing dependence on technology, the nature of intimacy and what it means to be human.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is estranged from his wife (Rooney Mara) but can’t bring himself to sign the divorce papers. He is morose yet sweet and expresses his emotions through his work.

Theodore writes other people’s greeting card messages and letters for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. The letters are personalized (he has written one couple’s letters to each other for years) and arrestingly sincere.

Drawn in by an advertisement, Theodore buys a new, artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who calls herself Samantha, and before long, Theodore and Samantha fall in love.

If that sounds too far-fetched, consider how deeply many people "love" their phones and how human Siri and other voice applications seem.

But Samantha is more than a Siri doppelganger. The ad describes Samantha as "an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness."

Samantha can also control Theodore’s computer and smart home, and he interacts with her at all times via voice. Their conversations are natural, like two friends talking casually.

Jonze builds a world around Theodore and Samantha which lends plausibility to their relationship.

Theodore plays a video game on an immersive, holographic interface that fills his living room. He can interact with game characters in the first person.

During one scene prior to buying Samantha, Theodore uses his voice assistant to find a chatroom and have phone sex with a stranger. (The encounter turns hilarious when the woman, voiced by Kristen Wiig, reveals a bizarre fetish I won’t reveal.)

Personal interaction and intimacy are flexible terms in the film’s world, and technology is undoubtedly leading us to these and other places. We’re so close to this reality, in fact, that "Her" is barely science fiction.

The movie brilliantly ponders how the integration of these technological advances into our lives affects us.

Few things in Theodore’s world are authentic or visceral. He lives in a world so full of simulacra, it’s dangerously easy for people to fall into preconceived roles, too.

The production design communicates this perfectly through a blend of nerdy retro and chic futurism that resembles an advertisement for Apple. Companies have long sold lifestyles more than products. So when we buy a new phone, are we buying the device or the idea of the person it will help us become?

Samantha experiences this crisis of identity directly. She confides to Theodore that she has begun to develop her own feelings and desires. But she wonders whether her feelings are real or part of her programming.

She is asking something many people ask: Who are we, and why are we who we are? It’s an innately human, philosophical dilemma — or is it?

Theodore and Samantha’s love affair in turn questions what we want from a relationship. Are we really willing to love someone as they are, or do we expect them to fit our ideal of them? When technology helps us mold so many other aspects of our lives to fit our desires, do we expect people to do the same?

Jonze’s concept and story are relevant and profound, and the filmmaking is impressive. Amazingly, he tells a moving, feature-length love story, yet his lead actress never appears visually on screen.

Phoenix deserves much of the credit for making it work, as do two supporting actresses.

Johansson voices Samantha perfectly, yet Samantha Morton provided the voice of Samantha on set during filming, and she was clearly crucial to Phoenix’s lead performance.

For a film with such philosophical subtext, "Her" is also surprisingly funny. Jonze occasionally reminds us how absurd the concept is.

But then again, aren’t our real relationships with technology often absurd?

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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