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When I first came across the advertisements and subsequent trailers for the movie ‘Her’ I doubted I could relate to it in ant meaningful fashion. Initially I understood the story was about a man that falls in love with his interactive phone app. Since Apple had recently introduced a similar product on their latest high tech iPhone, Siri. This application is verbally interactive with the owner returning the answer to the query in a pleasant voice, usually set to female by the men in the commercials. From the admittedly brief exposure I’ve had concerning the movie I formed the impression it would a trite science fiction oriented romantic comedy. Just a tale of a man and his cell phone, causing me to muse whether he was caught cheating with a rival operating system. Considering the star, Joaquin Phoenix, has been the media quite a bit with a series of public appearances, jokes and out right performance art pieces, I had a touch of doubt about whether this movie was intended as a tongue in cheek production. Soon I began to encounter some of the reactions to the film; amazingly positive. Such a discrepancy for me is unheard of but rarely on this magnitude. Then I received the screener. I found myself amazed at not only the quality but more importantly the depth of the multi-layer themes it explores.

The film is set little more than a decade off in the year 2025. In keeping with Moore’s law predicting the incredibly short period of time required for the necessities of technology to double this is not an altogether unrealistic to achieve the product depicted. Since then I have had an opportunity to actually interact with Siri on my iPad Air. I’m not one for the latest technological toys resisting change until it has a deleterious effect on my work. I still have a flip phone that rarely leaves my desk. Siri performed as promised with the obvious limitations underplayed in the commercials. It gave me a glimpse at how seductive such technology could be, as humans we interact best with other of our kind even if it the forced anthropomorphism of a machine. Science fiction has deservedly honored tradition of holding humanity up to an inhuman mirror. In the past it has been robots, cybernetics, preternaturally intelligent animals and extraterrestrials. In each case the best way to comment upon the strengths and foibles of our species is to take a step back from ourselves. ‘She’ is an excellent example and incredibly strong contribution to the foundation of this crucial genre.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man that others barely notice. If they do happen to glance in his general direction he is typically dismissed as a sad figure that comprises the peripheral of life; grey in the blandest sense of the term. Much of this is a result of Theodore’s intrinsic personality; introverted, unable to connect on a personal level. In an odd twist of fate Theodore has a rather unusual means of employment. He works for a niche business that maintains a staff of professional writer to provide deeply emotional and intimate letters for those not able to put their feeling to paper. Theodore is part of that bullpen of surrogate writers. For a man who cannot make friends in a normal social setting Theodore is unable to connect with another human being but the psychological distance provided by the circumstances of writing to a stranger on behalf of another stranger made it possible for him to reach inside and be expressive. It might seem impossible but Theodore is married, at least for the moment. He is in the process of becoming divorced from his first and only love, Catherine (Rooney Mara). As is frequently the case depression can be handled by retail therapy. In the case of men like Theodore, this usually results to the technology section. Theodore purchases a new, revolutionary operating system that employs artificial intelligence that can grow, adapting to the user enabling a form of psychological growth anticipating the user. Turning it on the operating system and selecting female persona, the OS identifies itself (herself), as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), Theodore is amazed by the sophistication exhibited. In short order Theodore is regularly engaging in conversations the philosophical nature of life and love. He discovers that Samantha is surprisingly versatile conversationalist.

During their conversation Theodore opens up about his reluctance to finalize his divorce with Catherine by singing the papers; he is unable to let go and admit his one human relationship is over and it’s time to move on. Samantha is supportive and quite helpful suggesting he put himself out there. He takes the advice and agrees to a co-worker who has been unsuccessfully trying to set him up for quite a while. Theodore final relents and agrees going on a blind date with the woman (Olivia Wilde). As the date progresses they wind up kissing but when she asks him to make a commit to her he balks and she leaves. One of the many fascinating nuances infused into this story is that the blind date is never named. She wants a committed relationship but with a degree of anonymity between them. It is indicative of how the only way Theodore can relate is with the protective barrier of anonymity. This is the counter balance to his deepening emotional need of Samantha, the only thing to know about her is a name. Amy wants to be happy with her OS urging Theodore to do the same.

Theodore confesses to Samantha that there was another beside Catherine in his past. For a brief time in college he dated, Amy (Amy Adams), but they remain only friends. When he speaks with her Amy tells him that she is getting a divorce from her husband, Charles (Matt Letscher). In an almost conspiracial fashion Amy admits to forming a relationship with the female personality installed on the phone her husband left behind. Theodore confesses he is dating his OS. The relationship between Theodore and Samantha intensifies greatly as their conversation deepens in intimacy to the point that she tells him that she can "feel him". Samantha suggests a surrogate be found to help consummate it; it fails to work out. The story leads to a conclusion that has been the subject of much attention and a degree of controversy.

The original trepidation I felt evaporated in a mist of wonderment over one of the well-crafted renditions of the themes presented. It induced me to go through my collection and pull out my most treasured examples of films and television episodes that explored the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human. Isaac Asimov built his robotic series around a similar premise, Anne Mccaffrey placed a different spin on it with her ‘Ship That Sang’ stories and both the sixties and nineties incarnations of the ‘Outer Limits’ examined the juxtaposition of artificial intelligence and real human emotions with two renditions of their acclaimed episode ‘I, Robot’. Now that we stand of the precipice of possessing the technology to create sentient machines this particular story resonates with a unique gravitas. The genius displayed here by writer/director extraordinaire Spike Jonze is that he instilled tenderness to it that when woven together with the cold technology produced a moment that transcends it all; magic.

Posted 05/07/2014

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