Thursday, January 15, 2015

Love, virtually: about a scene from Spike Jonze’s Her

End-of-year and beginning-of-year lists can be dreary things, but recently I saw an online poll that didn’t restrict itself to “Name your favourite films”. It asked supplementary questions, aimed at building a conversation about movies and contemporary life. Among these: what was the most striking or emblematic image (or scene) you saw in a film last year?

Even this question is reductive in its own way – it is hardly possible to “rank” all the memorable moments from films I watched in 2014. But Spike Jonze’s futuristic Her has a scene that has stayed with me over the past 12 months. It involves two people in an intimate situation (watch it out of context with the sound turned off and you think you can guess what is going on), but unable to interact at a human level because a machine is overseeing and directing what they do.

That makes Her sound like a horror film, and indeed the opening title appears in a serrated font, in a neon white against a black background, with a creepy soundtrack. It is tempting to see the “her” of the title – a conscious, intelligent Operating System called Samantha, with whom a man named Theodore develops a deep emotional bond – as a predatory ghost in the machine, a version of the girl crawling out of the TV screen in Ringu. But this film is not so easily classified. It can be described as a bone-chilling romance (there’s a poster blurb for you) between a man and a machine, but in another sense it is a love story between two operating systems or facilitators who make life easier for others by simulating emotion. (Theodore is human all right – nebbish, a little lost in person – but his job involves writing intimate letters on behalf of other people who don’t know how to express themselves.) It is also a version of the Pinocchio tale ("what is it like to be alive in that room just now?" Samantha asks from her virtual plane) and a logical step forward in this sense from Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence. And it is about how relationships, and attitudes to relationships, are changing in a tech-dependent world.

In the bleak scene I’m talking about, Theodore agrees to an arrangement where a real-world woman fills in as the operating system’s “body” so that he and Samantha can at least come close to making physical love. If this strange ménage-a-trois is to work, it is important that Theodore doesn’t address the human woman Isabella directly, or even acknowledge her reality; she must remain a passive medium. Dazed by the weirdness of the situation, though, he forgets this: when Isabella arrives at his door, he reflexively starts talking to her, introducing himself, and the look she gives him is that of a deer caught in a firestorm. For a few seconds – before he remembers to give Isabella the apparatus that will enable Samantha to “plug in” – here are two flesh-and-blood people who have no idea how to deal with each other because there is no machine between them, shepherding the encounter. This is awkward taken to a whole new dimension.

All this is happening in 2025. It's puzzling to find a film set in the very near future; that isn’t how science-fiction usually works. But part of the point is that technology is now altering our lives and behaviour more rapidly than ever before. A couple of decades ago, artificial intelligence was still a distant, theoretical enough concept for us to feel we couldn’t seriously be affected by it on a daily basis. Today, smart devices and Apps have anthropomorphised “personalities”, including human names and voices, and one is aware that a lot more may happen in 10 years.

Watching the threesome scene, I thought of human-facilitator-human relationships of the present day: about the gap between chatty, over-familiar interactions on a social-media page (between people who might not know each other well in the “real”
world) and the more tentative conversations that might occur if those same people happen to run into each other offline, exposed without their facilitators. But it is easy to play prophet of doom, to make noises about how technology is building cocoons and disconnecting us from each other. So perhaps I should also - in the New Year spirit - note the film's brighter passages, such as a scene on a beach where groups of people are lazing about, chatting, sun-bathing, their gadgets (temporarily at least) ignored. Or blink-and-miss moments like the one where Theodore, walking down a road, sneezes and a woman nearby says a quick “Bless you”, and it comes as a surprise to find that in a world where people are always chattering at their operating systems, old-fashioned displays of etiquette are possible too.

[From my Business Standard column]

1 comment:

  1. Aside, Charlie Brooker wrote 'Be Right Back' for Black Mirror which explores the complexities of virtual relationships that humans are likely to share with sentient softwares in near future. Very highly recommended if 'Her' fascinated you.