When I was a callow university student, many years ago now, I ended up taking as my dissertation topic the subject of the philosophical underpinnings of Artificial Intelligence. Highblown as this may sound, what it really boiled down to was my discussing endless repeats of Knight Rider with my supervising tutor over lavish quantities of coffee and doughnuts. Nevertheless, the dissertation itself turned out to be reasonably successful and I have taken a certain smug satisfaction from the way in which developments in the field have turned out to be broadly in line with my own poorly-articulated musings.
I have retained an interest in the subject, too, and so I was always likely to go and see Spike Jonze's Her, which – promisingly – looked like a non-action Hollywood SF movie, with the nature of AI as one of its central themes. However, I was somewhat rattled to find the film focussing on a fairly nondescript man heading into early middle age (he is played by Joaquin Phoenix) – he is socially reticent, has a failed marriage behind him, occasionally twiddles on the ukulele, and struggles to find the time to properly pursue his twin interests in peculiar computer games and internet pornography.
To be honest, friends, I was frankly wondering if I had grounds to sue the makers of Her for unauthorised use of my life story, but then the film launches off into rather less alarming territory. The man, Theodore, purchases a new OS (this is how the film labels an AI), which turns out to be voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The OS christens itself – or should that be herself? – Samantha, and she quickly makes herself an essential part of Theodore's life. The relationship – or should that be quasi-relationship? Part of the cleverness of the film is how utterly nonjudgemental it is about this – between Theodore and Samantha quickly deepens, to their mutual satisfaction, and when Theodore's continuing lack of romantic success leads him to the brink of despair, the possibility of an even deeper and more intimate connection occurs to them both. But is this particular state of harmony between man and machine even possible?
It is, of course, rather gratifying that what's indisputably a serious science fiction film in the most rigorous sense of the term has made it onto the Oscar best film sort-of-short list. It hasn't got a chance in hell of actually winning, of course, largely because I don't see the Academy being quite prepared to take to its bosom a film with quite so much graphically articulated and somewhat kinky sexual content in it. I don't generally have a problem with this sort of thing, but my general feeling is that the only thing worse than watching other people at it is listening to them talk about it, and there is a degree of the latter in Her, some of it quite bizarre.
Nevertheless, it is all perfectly consistent with the world of the film, which is a low-key, urban, somewhat hipsterish utopia (if that's not an oxymoron). It is a world in which human interaction has become mediated by technology to a much greater degree – this is established from the very start, when we learn Theodore's job is to write other people's personal letters for them. It is a parody and exaggeration of our own, but not an absurd one, and it's this which gives the film a certain relevance (well, maybe not if you live outside the First World, but since when are Hollywood movies ever made for that audience?).
And yet, as mentioned before, this is not a polemic, reactionary, or overtly traditionalist movie, bewailing the collapse of human-to-human contact in modern urban society. It pointedly does not present the relationship between Theodore and Samantha as something deviant or unhealthy. It is remarkably even-handed and actually rather sly in the way it plays with the audience's expectations: I was expecting the story to ultimately find Theodore forced to choose between his empty and pointless liaison with Samantha and a decent, genuine relationship with a real person (perhaps Amy Adams' equally lonely neighbour), perhaps with the time-honoured kicker of the AI turning into a vengeful simulant of Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction. This does not happen; the film pulls off the neat trick of remaining thoughtful, sensible, and yet unpredictable to the end.
Jonze's script is thoroughly admirable, but its realisation is equally impressive – I'm not at all surprised that Joaquin Phoenix has been nominated for a raft of acting awards, rather that he hasn't actually won more of them (or indeed snagged an Oscar nomination). He is in practically every scene of the film and manages to make a potentially inaccessible character very human and sympathetic. Johanssen is also good – but then Jonze has attracted an excellent cast, including Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt and others (Kristen Wiig and Brian Cox are amongst those making voice cameos).
This isn't a flashily conventional movie, but rather a disconcerting and perhaps somewhat disturbing one. I can imagine some audiences being ultimately repelled by the fact it is about the fundamental nature of humanity and our shifting relationship with technology, than an orthodox romance – I liked it very much for exactly the same reasons, which may say more about me than the movie. History will prove the extent to which Her is either an oblique commentary on modern society, or a prophecy about the rise of post-human culture, but, for me, at this moment in time it is an impressively thoughtful and very accomplished one. It won't win the Best Picture Oscar, and perhaps it doesn't even deserve to. But for such an unusual film to end up on the shortlist should speak to its very high quality.