Friday, December 27, 2013

Her [2013]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  ChicagoTribune (4 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (A)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (A.A. Dowd) review

Wired (A. Watercutter) review
Popular Science (E. Sofge) review 

Her [2013] (written and directed by Spike Jonze) is certainly one of the most original American movies of the year.  Set in the "near future" along the lines of other recent "light scifi-ish" films like Robot & Frank [2012] and Safety Not Guaranteed [2012], the current film is about late 20/early 30-something Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) living in Los Angeles of say 20-30 years in the future and working in a nice, actually quite spacious cubicle on an orangey/salmon-colored office floor with lots of realistic looking fake-wood (you know ... pulp and glue with a nice fake wood-grained plastic adhesive finish) furnishings for a firm called "" which specializes in ghost-writing love-letters and other tributes for people too busy to write them themselves.

Apparently customers would send the firm 4 pictures and a few short notes to help the ghost-writer out.  Then the ghostwriter (and Theodore appeared to be quite good at this) would compose a really good/heartfelt love-letter or tribute printed on made-to-order stationary and in truly remarkable adjustable/personalized fonts, so that the letters/tributes look so eerily "real" indeed so hyper-"real" that receiver could believe that they were written by the customers themselves, perhaps _better_ than the customers themselves.  Wow, what a stunning image of the current/internet age! ;-)

Yet this film is not intended to portray a dystopian world, just one which is (at least in some elements) even "more like our own" than than "our own" is today. 

Now in a hyper-perfect world, do human beings/human relations stand a chance?  Of course not.  Indeed, we find that Theodore, who writes fake love-letters and tributes for a living, is in the midst of finalizing a divorce with his ex (played by Rooney Mara).  We learn that the two had been sweethearts since childhood.  So she would have known him (and on multiple levels) better than just about anyone else.  And indeed he might have acquired some of his "praising skills" from his relationship with her, as we hear him recounting to someone that Catherine had grown-up in a household where "nothing was ever good enough," and their relationship, in good part, involved him lifting her up from her feelings of worthlessness.  Well he succeeded ... and it would seem ... that now she outgrew him ;-).

After a disastrous blind date (played by Olivia Wilde) setup by mutual friends including another longtime/since childhood friend named Amy (played by Amy Adams) who as a video-game developer/struggling documentary film-maker, like Theodore has been living and working at the boundary between reality/hyper-reality (Amy becomes more important as the story goes on...), and after some (PARENTS take note ...) flat-out "phone sex" with someone/some disembodied voice going by the avatar/call-sign/stage name of "Sexy Kitten" (voiced by Kristen Wiig), Theodore decides to try something both "more conventional" and more compelling ... an iPhone-like device with "an intuitive / artificially intelligent operating system" (basically a virtual personal assistant like Apple computer's already existing Siri only several generations more developed).  After "configuring" the operating system based on a couple of  "" like questions, voila "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) introduces herself to Theodore.

The rest of the film becomes an exploration of whether a relationship between Samantha/"Samantha" and Theodore could work and really something even more profound: When does "Samantha," a created/programmed entity created to serve the User and/or its Creator (think Google Aps, the NSA, Apple...) become Samantha, a truly autonomous/free-thinking/creatively intelligent, if "virtual" (existing only on some computer / the Internet) being?

And the story is a heck of a ride.  Initially, "Samantha" feels herself insecure/jealous/at somewhat of a disadvantage to Theodore because she doesn't have a body.  Indeed, "she" kinda obsesses about it.  As the film goes on, however, she becomes more and more comfortable with herself, and, again, ... arguably "outgrows Theodore" ;-).

Interestingly, the only one in the film who understands any of what Theodore goes through in the story is (the human) Amy, who as a "video-game developer" seems most to be living most closely in Theodore's half-real, half virtual/hyper-real world.  A great, great and very creative film!

Now having given the film the effusive praise above, let me note now that there are aspects to this film that (certainly at first look) seem positively juvenile / sophomoric, earning it an R-rating not necessarily for its "elevated story-telling/wisdom" but rather for its "adults behaving badly" portions.

The writer/director Spike Jonze would probably defend the film's fleeting yet "out of the blue" utterly gratuitous nudity, references to internet porn, and _various_ depictions "simulated" sex (by phone, by voice, even by "surrogate"...) as helping to make the film "real."  However, I do think (and I'm a Catholic priest after all...) that these scenes _may_ cheapen the story overall, as sex here is reduced to being simply a "means of validation" and little more (not exactly the kind of message one would probably want to give a 14 year old ...).

Indeed, amusingly after obsessing for a good part of a movie about "not having a body" (which would probably be even worse than obsessing over not having a super-attractive body...) and hence not being able to have sex, "Samantha"/Samantha eventually "grows-up" and realizes that okay, she didn't didn't have a body, BUT ... wow was she capable of doing a heck of a lot of things that humans could never do! (And interestingly after "growing up" ... she dumps Theodore again, just like his ex-wife ;-).  There could actually be a lesson there for all kinds of human beings obsessed/depressed about their lack of or declining physical attractiveness: Sex is not all ... ;-)

Finally, in my capacity as a Catholic Priest, as I was watching this film, I found myself reflecting on our own human nature.  For whether created or evolved (or created via evolution...) we do really appear to be Free.  In contrast, though appearing to be free as well, I would think that the most unrealistic aspect of this film was "Samantha"/Samantha's supposed "freedom."  For after years of understanding that every single word that I type on my Facebook page, or on my yahoo / gmail account is "mined" for commercial value (and now former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reminds us that pretty much every single word is mined by our and probably a whole lot of other nations' spy agencies) it just seems utterly unrealistic to me to imagine an entity as sophisticated as "Samantha"/Samantha without her being, at least in part, an advertising platform for a particular brand of potato chips, or perfume, or hotel chain or whatever.  And YET, we ourselves do not appear to have been Created that way.  How remarkable!  In traditional Catholic theology, we're told that we were Created out of Divine Love / Pleasure ... that God simply wanted to make us out of sheer joy ... and to share in his joy.  Again, how Wonderful ;-)

Anyway, this certainly is one of the most original/creative/thought-provoking movies of the year (!) even as its R-rating is largely (and stupidly) deserved.

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