What I learned about technology after taking a look at “Her”

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The cast of “Her” from left to right: Joaquin Phoenix, director Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde. “Her” was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture.  (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
The cast of “Her” from left to right: Joaquin Phoenix, director Spike Jonze, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara and Olivia Wilde. “Her” was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture.
(Photo/Wikimedia Commons)


The central gimmick in Spike Jonze’s new film “Her” — that an adult man would be so lonely and desperate enough as to fall in love with a computer operating system (or an “OS” for short) — is enough to engage or disgust potential audiences right off the bat.

Forgive me: “Her” didn’t see a wide release until mid-January, and even then it was a couple weeks until I managed to catch it myself. But in my late-to-the-party defense, this Best Picture Award nominee is just sci-fi enough to where I reckon exact timeliness regarding this type of film becomes moot.

An alternate-reality future shadows Los Angeles’ utopian skyline, where Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) works as a ghost writer scribing sappy, lovelorn letters by day, and struggles through the aftermath of his own recent divorce by night.

Phoenix has played a tortured soul before (most immediately and powerfully in 2012’s “The Master”), but the actor heaps so much pity on his character here until it becomes believable enough that maybe a computer is the only thing left on earth that could save this man from himself.

“Her” is a particular case of the type of film that’s advertisements condition you to expect one thing, but the finished product is a bit of another. Walking into the theater I fully expected to see the plight of a desperate person who turns to technology because he has no other choice; what I had discovered by the time I left the theater was that Theodore certainly had other options, he simply rejected them because he was already in love.

Samantha (playfully voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is the titular OS, and the object of Theodore’s infatuation. As the most advanced piece of software on the planet, Samantha’s programmers instilled in her the breadth of all human emotion, ensuring she’ll add just the right amount of excitement to Theodore’s humdrum life. The two connect (in a technologically punny sense, I suppose) and sparks fly.

It’s weird, sure, but it’s not entirely implausible that folks in our own world may some day follow suit, as long as the technology’s there. It’s hardly 2014 after all, and already you hear stories of people falling in love via telecommute. (Whether we should encourage this or not is tricky. Does the term “catfish” ring a bell?)

But what’s to say a highly intelligent computing system capable of mimicking the totality of human behavior (at least in every realm but the physical, which is a problem the film handles with gusto) is that much different from a living person on the other end of a telephone? Aren’t they both in theory just voices, and therefore personalities, that are simply being transmitted electronically?

The answer to that last question, at least according to the film’s persuasion, is no. Lifelike as she may be, Jonze ultimately creates a disconnect between what Samantha is able to offer Theodore versus what a real human being with a body and soul and facial expressions could. “Her” does a wonderfully good job of breathing life into Samantha, but it’s still just an artificial life at best.

The technological moral of “Her” is both timely and somewhat prophetic. However, the film’s philosophical conceit remains hopelessly stalwart: there’s no substitute for humanity. “Her” gives a look at a possible reality where technology indeed reigns supreme. But I learned that even given this best-case future scenario, the gadgetry still comes up short.

Technology will undoubtedly go on to shift the course of many things, but it will never, ever — at least as far out as we can see — replace what it means to be human. For that it deserves thanks.

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