Review of Her (2013)

Moving picture, 126 minutes

Seen in 2019.

A man in the last stage of a divorce falls in love with a voice-interfaced digital assistant. It is referred to as an operating system, but the reason for this is not clear. The assistant is an anthropomorphic artificial general intelligence, capable of reading and digesting books in milliseconds immediately upon instantiation, and holding thousands of concurrent conversations while running on apparently modest consumer hardware. The man’s job is similar to the assistant’s: He writes letters on behalf of others.

SF drama. I tend to think that Hollywood SF productions over-emphasize the human drama that is required to sell a movie to a wide audience, leaving too little emphasis on the ideas that identify SF. At worst, an idea is so mishandled that its consequences play out illogically. This is a clear case of that problem. Instead of talking about a plausible future market for digital assistants, or the real phenomenon of people falling in “love” with fictional “waifu” characters presented in video games, a human-level drama takes up the entire foreground.

The background includes widespread social change, but only in the detail that people more readily talk as if on the phone in public. It’s a superficial difference with no real impact on society. At one point, a woman naïvely volunteers to serve as the assistant’s body for sex, in the only scene that implies real emotional damage from technological utopianism or social decay and alienation. Privacy concerns around the new technology are presented as cause for suspicion on a strictly personal level, not connected to Shoshana Zuboff’s mass surveillance or the impersonal leaks and breaches that matter in the real world. Job markets don’t seem to be moving at all. Fashion has retreated to an earlier time.

Paradoxically, despite how little change is seen, the script runs on rote transhumanist assumptions from the 1990s. It simply fails to illustrate or pursue them. There is brief mention of AIs getting together to raise the dead and give them superhuman levels of intelligence in a perpetual afterlife of “postverbal” communication. Nobody in the film ever expresses an interest in where this might lead or whether it should be condoned or supervised. There is no political or judicial layer to the narrative. The entire cast has the same passive, powerless relationship with technology as an Apple cultist, the company whose aesthetic dominates this vision of the near future. One of the main characters is a game developer, but even she says nothing substantial about the new technology, nor would Spike Jonze be able to. He doesn’t seem to know what an operating system is, nor does he have P. K. Dick’s understanding of authenticity as a theme.

The film’s failure to engage with its own ideas leaves it slow and pointless. It must have been created as an ordinary star vehicle, with high ambitions of emotional intimacy and about 15% nebulous concern for contemporary social developments mixed in, almost as an afterthought. Predictably, there are some very nice details in its presentation, especially in the naturalistic use of video games and the bold choice never to show some of the stars on screen. Personally, I appreciate the warm colours in place of cyberpunk visual clichés like dark, crime-ridden streets, but that is mere surface.

References here: Transcendence (2014), Violet Evergarden (2018).

moving picture fiction