Thursday, January 23, 2014

REVIEW: ‘Her’ teaches there’s no substitute for the human element

In the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” directed by the late Stanley Kubrick, Hal is a computer who commits homicide. The movie was an indictment of the computer age we were entering, a warning as to where and to what artificial intelligence might lead.

Perhaps we have our answer in “Her,” the new movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Spike Jonze. But instead of homicidal tendencies, the human sentiment exhibited by artificial intelligence in “Her” is love.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely 40-something who for a living writes personal love letters and is going through a divorce. For companionship, Theodore logs into what are called Operating Systems (OS), a new fangled computerized form of companionship.

Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is the name of the OS that Theodore has adopted. At first it strikes Theodore as a nifty form of company, and he conducts conversations as if it were human. Alas, the relationship gels into what could be called an affair. Theodore finds himself caring about Samantha and even feels like he is cheating on her when he is out on a date with a real person.

Theodore also flatters himself in the relationship, imagining that Samantha is jealous of his soon-to-be ex-wife. When Theodore tells his wife he is in a relationship with an OS, she tells him off for having an affair with a computer.

She goes on to make judgmental pronouncements that Theodore is too selfish to commit to a human relationship. But she could not be more wrong. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is very much give-and-take with each having an interest in the other. There is between them even the occasional argument that springs up in a relationship.

Of course, the relationship contains inevitable and somewhat insurmountable difficulties. For instance, there is the obvious issue of sex. Samantha enlists the services of a young woman who volunteers to be a partner so as to simulate sex between Theodore and his OS. The experiment is a disaster, and a bizarre one at that.

Theodore and Samantha become so much a couple that the two actually go on a double date. And the other couple accepts their unorthodox relationship, finding Samantha excellent company.

But the relationship between Theodore and Samantha cannot last. Having earlier flattered himself that Samantha was jealous, Theodore late in the movie becomes the jealous party. Much to his dismay, he learns Samantha is maintaining thousands of relationships, hundreds of which are romantic in nature.

Theodore is even more hurt when learning Samantha has relationships with other Operating Systems. And indeed, Samantha breaks off their relationship, explaining she has to go on a journey with her OS counterparts.

“Her” is fantasy and even in our age, the computer will not take the role of the romantic substitute. But the movie provides valuable lessons. Contrary to his ex-wife telling Theodore he is incapable of a human relationship, we see in his relationship with an OS that a computer cannot sanitize love to such an extent as to create a relationship free of the pitfalls of human relationships.

From Hal to “Her,” the computer has taken a role almost as crucial in the arts as in technology. The difference between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Her” is that the former is a stark warning about the direction of the computer age, while the latter is a mild caveat that we cannot hope for computers to address all our needs or alleviate all of our aggravations.

The computer has limitations and in “Her” the limitations are ironically highlighted by the computer’s capabilities. There is still in “Her” no substitute for the human element.

John O’Neill wrote this review for Digital First Media, reprinted with permission.

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