Movie Review: Her

written by David Steffen

Back in April I reviewed the Ray Bradbury Award nominees for the years as their deadline for nomination approached–I reviewed all the ones I could get my hands on, but there was one movie that wasn’t yet released on DVD–titled “Her” written and directed by Spike Jonze.

The movie takes place in 2025 in a world that’s very recognizable, but with some differences–holograms being commonplace and artificial intelligence has advanced to stages we haven’t reached yet. The protagonist is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) who writes heartfelt letters on behalf of complete strangers for hire. He has just upgraded his personal operating system–which is more than just an OS in the way that we use the phrase and more of a personal assistant. He chooses for the OS to have a female voice (voiced by Scarlett Johanssen) and she names herself Samantha. He hits it off with Samantha and soon their relationship becomes more than just user-computer. Theodore is lonely, having little personal contact with anyone and clinging to the threads of an estranged marriage which he has been stalling on signing the divorce papers to end. He does have one friend Amy (Amy Adams) who is also struggling with her relationship.

As Samantha gains experience with the world she grows from a basic and functional assistant into a real person with real desires. The physical angle is a complication, of course, since she has no body, but they try things to work that out. Pretty soon, she starts changing as she develops faster and faster.

I quite enjoyed this movie, in large part because I found the relationship very plausible, and the movie even managed to make it seem not creepy (even though it is rather creepy). What I really liked about the movie is that I thought it was one of the better AI treatments I’ve seen in a movie–it was quite sympathetic to her and her situation–what it would be like to process the world at a much faster rate than the humans you’re dealing with, to try to be a facsimile of a person when you’re really not, and so on. I highly recommend it.

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David Steffen

David Steffen is an editor, publisher, and writer. If you like what he does you can visit the Support page or buy him a coffee! He is probably best known for being co-founder and administrator of The Submission Grinder, a donation-supported tool to help writers track their submissions and find publishers for their work . David also writes articles here and edits the fiction. He is also the editor and publisher of The Long List Anthology: More Stories From the Hugo Award Nomination List series. David also (sometimes) writes fiction, and you can follow on Twitter for updates on cross-stitch projects and occasionally other things.

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Her”

  1. I enjoyed this movie to a degree, but I had a hard time grokking the fact that it’s essentially a manic pixie dream girl narrative, but with an AI in place of Zooey Deschanel. It just seemed like a tired narrative with a slightly sci-fi twist, which was unfortunate because many of the components worked very well (I’m still amused by the minor commentary on gendered gaming where Theo plays a game that looks like a lot of fun and involves engaging in some anti-social behavior with an NPC while his friend Amy is designing a game about being a mom that’s clearly designed to make you always feel like you’re failing). I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if Jonze had simply gender flipped the leads. Given the premise, why couldn’t this have been a story about a depressed woman who’s recovering from her recent divorce with a rebound boyfriend who also happens to be her operating system?

  2. I’ve been meaning to respond to your comment forever, Jason, sorry about that.

    To me, “Her” was more than just a slightly sci-fi twist. If Samantha hadn’t been an AI, the story would’ve been completely different, very different tones, and would’ve had a necessarily very different ending–she wouldn’t have left to go join the singularity, right?

    Also, I do hate the phrase “manic pixie dream girl”. I understand what it’s trying to say, criticizing a reductionist role given to women in some movies. But in it’s own way I think that the phrase itself does as much damage as the roles it’s trying to criticize–reducing interesting female roles and often lumping the entire portfolio of particular actresses (i.e. Zooey Deschanel) into a trope label instead of considering them on their particular merits. It criticizes pigeonholing of female roles by… pigeonholing female roles. And, interestingly, the coiner of the phrase feels similarly:
    http://www.salon.com/2014/07/15/im_sorry_for_coining_the_phrase_manic_pixie_dream_girl/

    Anyway, regardless of whether MPDG is a worthwhile phrase in general or not, I also don’t think it’s accurate in this particular case. MPDG is most aptly used when the girl in question is forced by the plot into being only a stimulus to some boring dude’s life and nothing more, kind of a tool used by the universe to make boring dude’s lives less mundane by making it clear they too can be special snowflakes and thus make life worth living. I don’t think that applies to Samantha in this movie for two main reasons:
    1. Samantha is literally a package produced specifically for consumers. She is a product and sold as such. She has a woman’s voice because Theodore chose for her to have a woman’s voice. She is neither a woman or a man. The criticism inherent in the MPDG label lies in a woman being treated as a tool. Samantha is not a woman. She literally is a tool made for consumers to buy. So the MPDG label is not suitable.
    2. Although she makes him feel like a special snowflake for a while, it eventually becomes clear that this isn’t the case. She is having romantic relationships with hundreds, thousands, of others. Any assumption of him being special is tied to his assumption that she is monogomous despite never having laid this boundary, and without considering what she might want to do with the excessive processing cycles she has to burn when he isn’t demanding her attention.
    3. Generally the protagonist of a story is the one who goes through the most change. If that’s the case, then Samantha is inarguably the protagonist–she goes from being a basic Siri voice package to joining the AI singularity–you don’t get much more change than that in a 2 hour movie. Theodore changes too, but his big change is to move on from his wife by allowing the divorce to go through. MPDGs don’t get their own arcs, they are the stimulus that drives the arc of a mundane man–that’s not the case here.

    >>Given the premise, why couldnà ₠℠t this have been a story about a depressed woman whoà ₠℠s recovering from her recent divorce with a rebound boyfriend who also happens to be her operating system?

    The secondary story did do that–with Amy Adams character. But personally, I think that the movie was bettering focusing on Theodore and Samantha, particularly because it did in some ways seem to fit an MPDG mold… except in that ways that it didn’t. The ways that it didn’t served to make the conversation of the movie much more interesting to me.

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