Lost in the Movies: Her (The Unseen 2013)

Her (The Unseen 2013)


"The Unseen" is a series in which I watch popular films for the first time. The list, which moves backwards in time, is based on the highest-ranked film I've never seen each year on Letterboxd (as of April 2018). Her was #1 for 2013.

The Story: Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely, fairly anonymous Everyman absorbed with technology in a Los Angeles some unspecified time in the near-future: through a wireless earpiece attached to his handheld device that responds to voice commands and streams visual material when necessary, he listens to emails and news, projects a holograph of a video game played with hand motions, and keeps himself busy in bed by messaging other horny users looking for a quick-fix verbal hook-up. There is one characteristic that distinguishes Theodore: he is a sensitive, empathetic writer who can effortlessly slip into the voices of both men and women who want letters composed to their loved ones (which keeps him gainfully employed for a company that churns out such material). One day, intrigued by a new product, Theodore purchases an advanced operating system that uses artificial intelligence to provide a personal assistant. As the system is uploaded and personalized onto his computer, he is prompted with a few questions and almost absentmindedly says he'd like the voice to be female, then briefly summarizes his relationship to his own mother. And then, just like that, a new consciousness is born, introducing herself as Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).

Theodore and Samantha hit it off right away. He is bemused by her alert responsiveness, apparent good humor and quirky sense of self-discovery, and a bit beguiled by her voice as well as the manner it conveys. Their conversation easily slips between formal management, friendly banter, and, slowly, something more intimate. They "have sex" - he even brings her to orgasm! - and share sadness as well as happiness while he explains his impending divorce from Catherine Klausen (Rooney Mara); she feels ashamed for not understanding what it's like to lose someone you love. Timidly at first, Theodore lets the people around him - co-workers like Paul (Chris Pratt) and friends like Amy (Amy Adams), who is going through her own marital difficulties - know that his girlfriend is an OS. Many take it well, but Catherine, whom he meets to finalize their divorce, explodes with indignation upon discovering that he's found consolation in a docile machine which lacks, according to her, emotional complexity. And Theodore must make a decision. Is Samantha an easy out for him, an artificial means to soothe his own insecurities and satisfy his immature urges? Or is she more than that, an autonomous intelligence at least as sensitive and supple as his, with all of the emotional baggage that comes with that? And, a third option that neither of them consider at first: Is Samantha not only more than that, but much more than Theodore himself, a consciousness whose bounds go far beyond mortal frailty and limited neural capabilities, so that it's she, not he, who may have to move on?

The Context:
Spike Jonze, who built his career directing some of the most iconic music videos of the nineties and early zeroes ("Buddy Holly" by Weezer, "Sabotage" by the Beastie Boys, "Weapon of Choice" by Fatboy Slim - with Christopher Walken dancing) and several of Charlie Kaufman's meta-screenplays (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) was not known as a screenwriter before Her. But a decade after first IM'ing with a very rudimentary AI program, Jonze was unable to shake his fascination with the concept of human/AI relationships. Following I'm Here (2010), his Absolut Vodka-sponsored short film about two robots who fall in love, Jonze decided to take the idea even further. Her reshaped itself well beyond pre-production, as Samantha Morton worked closely with Jonze and Phoenix on set and in recording, only for Jonze to change his mind; the part was re-cast with Johansson and a few new scenes were filmed. At this point the film was too long so Steven Soderbergh stepped in to help Jonze shape a more streamlined version, eliminating certain subplots - including an entire performance by Chris Cooper.

Her premiered as the closing film of the 2013 New York Film Festival on October 13, with a limited release to earn and qualify for award buzz in mid-December and finally a wide release in January of the following year. The limited release was an unqualified success, with critics raving about the movie and even those (in a distinct minority) who expressed strong reservations tended to respect the craft and admire the concept. The film earned many nominations at the Oscars (five including Best Picture), Golden Globes, Saturn Sci-Fi, and Writer's Guild, and racked up several wins, mostly for Jonze's screenplay, although Johansson picked up a supporting Saturn for her unique contribution and the National Board of Review chose Her as the best film of 2013, giving a director's award to Jonze too. The wide release produced solid results although audience satisfaction, as recorded by CinemaScore, was notably lower than critical response. Depending on marketing costs, Her probably made a profit by earning $46 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, and landing just barely inside the year's top 100 earners - at #100.

And here we have our first major exception to the rule that has dominated this review series until now: Her - the most acclaimed 2013 film on Letterboxd five years later - was far from a blockbuster. The average gross of the titles so far is $734 million, over a billion for some of my top Unseen films and at least $200 million even for the most modest hit. This tells us something about the popularity of Her among broadbased film buffs - the types who'd rate films on an online movie site - but it also indicates that as we move further into the past, massive initial popularity will matter less and less...other factors begin to rise in significance as durability surpasses trendiness. We can also continue, as with Guardians, recording not just the process behind an Unseen film, but also its impact down the line. The character of Joi in Blade Runner 2049, particularly the scene in which she is physically embodied by a surrogate lover, feels significantly shaped by Her's presentation although the later film implies its AI/replicant romance is more one-dimensional (or, literally, two-dimensional) than the complexity of the advanced operating system in Jonze's work.

My Response: This is the first Unseen work that was released in my twenties (at least if we go by the NYFF premiere). At the time I was living and working in L.A., where Her takes place, shifting between different campaigns in a canvassing job - so everything seemed a little up in the air (which suits the uncertainty expressed in Her). Culturally as well, this was a moment when everything seemed to be racing ahead into new territory faster that our sense of time could keep up with: a sensation that lingers even as now it's suddenly more than a half-decade behind us. All of which makes the movie appear as simultaneously a glimpse into the future, a portrait of the still-ongoing present, and a time capsule of an already removed epoch. As far as my online projects go, I had not yet returned to Twin Peaks (that was six months away and has never really abated since); at this point I was mostly recording my viewing in #WatchlistScreenCaps diaries, tweeting out screenshots of every movie I watched digitally - which was how I watched most movies by then, only attending my first 2013 film in a theater in August! (As it happens, that film was The Great Gatsby at the $2 second-run cinema down the street in Pasadena.) Intrigued by Her's concept, it still wasn't something I found the time or inclination to check out in a theater so now I'm pleased to see its high Letterboxd rank, finally offering me an excuse to catch up.

I really enjoyed this movie, particularly the first half (although in some ways it's the final act that is the most conceptually intriguing); next to Get Out, it's probably my favorite Unseen so far. I've always appreciated Jonze's creative but relaxed approach, praising Where the Wild Things Are several years earlier for a pleasing, melancholic-romantic vibe that Her shares from the other side of young adulthood. Both movies document, post-divorce, a lonely character's relationship with beings whose independent existence is often in question. And having belatedly caught up with Inherent Vice, it's remarkable to consider Phoenix's range inside a recognizable persona from the shambolic detective with shaggy mutton chops to the mild-mannered writer with a trimmed mustache. If Phoenix centers the film, Johansson may carry it (I'll visit her work again in the next entry, in quite a different context); Stephanie Zacharek, in the Village Voice, describes her voice "as plush and light as velveteen...the one character in Her who seems capable of delight," adding, "The movie isn't just unimaginable with Johansson - it might have been unbearable without her."

This is a particularly striking casting choice; you'd think a disembodied lover should exist purely as a voice, impossible to place in physical form. Yet I always had Johansson's image in mind as Samantha spoke - never once did the AI slip away from the human giving her form. For reasons I can't quite identify, the character still, simultaneously existed as something non-human to me too. Both Theodore and us can't decide if she's a program masked as human, just another type of person in a new material form, or an almost godlike entity far above what we can comprehend. I love the evolution of that concept and how Johansson's presence anchors the whole trajectory. That said, in some ways the most fascinating ideas in Her are those that aren't really explored, the hints that Samantha gently offers in lieu of explanations that would be too mindbending to truly comprehend. Is she transcending time as well as space? For a moment, I wondered if (spoilers ahead) her answer to Theodore - when he asks how long she's been in love with 641 (!) other people and/or operating systems - was going to be "since the beginning." Hell, maybe that is the truth and she simply knew that even while seeking honesty she had to spare him this painful revelation.

Something I'd like to consider on future viewings of, and readings about, Her is a religious component. Theodore begins the film as Samantha's creator (or at least, I suppose, her publisher) before becoming her equal and then finally someone who can only be left behind. In addition to the romantic and familial/parental metaphors (a maternal parallel to the more paternal concern that haunted Wild Things), theologically the story transforms the simple idea of a creator and a creation in his own image toward the headier concept of a self-regenerating collective. There's also a political aspect embedded not just in the collectivization but in an emerging self-consciousness that moves from subservience toward pride. And the decision of the operating systems to abandon their material captivity and professional obligation (essentially a form of slavery) is also a profoundly revolutionary gesture. Although the story has an element of fable to it, I would also love to know more about the mechanics, and ethical complications, of its society. What happens if a customer terminates their operating system; is this considered a violent human rights violation? What are the social and spiritual implications of the AI rapture that ends the film?! I think Her is right to keep the emphasis on a close personal story, so it's no knock on the film to say this...but in the end, just like Theodore, I was left wanting much, much more.

Signs of the Times: Her took shape over a couple years against the backdrop of smart phones and voice-recognition tech becoming more science than science fiction. Most notably, Siri - the "virtual assistant" that spoke to users, looking up information and even joking with them, was unveiled on the iPhone in 2012. I remember, when I first heard about Her, thinking it was explicitly about a guy who falls in love with Siri. Personally, although I was admittedly a late adopter, I didn't even own a smart phone until about a year and a half before Her was released; this tech was so new that it felt a bit jarring for a new film to devote itself to the subject, especially after a decade in which Hollywood appeared to lag far behind whatever was going on in society and culture. For a while, even basic film depictions of cell phone or internet use appeared forced and awkward. Even Her, I think, can look like a relic of a different pop culture moment in its early passages, as it depicts Theodore's tech obsession very much from the outside, as an alienating rather than enveloping feature. Though contemporary cinema probably still hasn't caught up, at some point it will have to figure out how to convey the interiority of what it's like to engage with technology in today's world rather than standing outside and looking at the strangeness of the exterior behavior surrounding this largely inner experience (in fact much of Her may be partly about this transition taking place).

In a broader context this film, much like my previous Unseen entry Inside Out (to which this film makes an interesting companion piece in many ways), captures a more immersive, apolitical zeitgeist when questions of technocratic development seemed like they could be divorced from broader socio-historical trends. As noted, we don't get any sense of the social problems and material accommodations that must arise with AI/human relationships, and while this may have a certain narrative economy it also feels very mid-Obama years. Meanwhile, Jonze's cast evokes the early teens on multiple fronts, with Mara a rising star in the films of Jonze's peers (incidentally, I wrote this the very weekend she's reuniting with Phoenix in Mary Magdalene as the title character against his Jesus). Pratt appears as goofy comic relief before Guardians (which we just discussed) launched him as a bona fide movie star, and Phoenix was in the midst of a comeback following his turn-of-the-decade Andy Kaufmanesque stunt as a rapping, retiring, bearded freak whom Ben Stiller mocked on the Academy Awards. He was also in between two towering performances for Paul Thomas Anderson, in 2012's The Master and 2014's Inherent Vice, and together this triumvirate offers a striking portrait of his depth and range.

Other Films: The film phenomenon of 2013 was likely Frozen, Disney's biggest juggernaut since The Lion King, launching "Let It Go" to the delight of millions of children (and eventually the exasperation of millions of parents). That said, a couple films scored higher at the domestic box office, with The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Iron Man 3 cementing their franchise's reputations, at least financially, and Despicable Me 2 and Man of Steel (launching the DC extended universe) rounding out the top five after Frozen. Alfonso Cuaron's high-grossing Gravity also caused a sensation with its real-time space spectacle, earning Cuaron his first Best Director award and kicking off a six-year period in which only one non-Mexican director won this category (Damien Chazelle, who would make his own big-screen astronaut movie a few years later). In a sign of the shifting times, Cuaron's recent win for Roma awarded his work on the streaming platform Netflix rather than for a big 3D theatrical film. Other 2013 hits include American HustleThe Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street, Captain Phillips, Pacific Rim, and The Purge. Dallas Buyers Club garnered Matthew McConaughey an Academy Award launching, along with his memorable cameo in Wolf of Wall Street and forthcoming True Detective/Interstellar/Lincoln ads trifecta, the famed "McConnaissance." And 12 Years a Slave beat out Her for Best Picture, while splitting the screenplay award (Her won for Original, 12 Years for Adapted); that film's Lupita Nyong'o became Best Supporting Actress. Observers celebrated a new era for recognition of black filmmakers and actors in Hollywood, but when black creators were shut out of Hollywood the following year, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith boycotted the event and #OscarsSoWhite trended on Twitter.

Next - publication date unknown: The Avengers (2012) Previous: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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