The themes of humanity versus machine and humanity alongside machine have been explored in minute detail through science fiction novels, films and television, from Dennis Feltham Jones’ 1966 novel Colossus, filmed in 1970 as Colossus: The Forbin Project, Philip K Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? best known as the basis of Blade Runner, through to the HAL 9000 unit of 2001 A Space Odyssey, the murderous Hector of Saturn 3, Ulysses of Making Mr Right, the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, the lovebot Lenore of Serenity and on both sides of the case the various Terminator units.
While Almost Human is exploring these questions for the new century, the Star Trek universe has practically written a thesis on the interaction of organic and artificial intelligence. After years of watching the warm up act of Bones winding up Spock, James Kirk’s ability to talk computers to death (The Return of the Archons,The Changeling, The Ultimate Computer) is legendary, but more depth was shown with Lieutenant Commander Data, with particular note taken of his relationships with Lieutenants Tasha Yar and Jenna D’Sora (The Naked Now, In Theory), though of particular interest are the androids of Exo III as depicted in What Are Little Girls Made Of? (“An android is like a computer, it does only what I program. As a trained scientist yourself, you must realise-” “That given a mechanical [research assistant], a mechanical geisha would be no more difficult?”), but all these are physical manifestations, not abstract.
Perhaps realising that he has little new to bring to the hard science fiction debate, director Spike Jonze, known for his prolific music video career and the skewed cinematic charm of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where the Wild Things Are, takes a different approach with Her. The first time Jonze has developed a script without collaboration, it is an examination of the way technologies have entered into the lives of the population, with multiple social media, forums and online communities being more relevant and meaningful to many than their relationships to those immediately around them.
With boundaries dissipating in the wake of instant global communication, distance is no longer an object to friendship, and for those comparatively isolated within a small circle of acquaintances either by geography or social situation, it is often easier to find someone of shared interests and compatible outlook beyond the immediate horizon, though a relationship with a person who is intangible, no matter how intense the connection, presents new and unique difficulties that have only manifested within the last generation, and it is this which Jonze explores.
In the final stages of divorce from childhood sweetheart Catherine, Theodore Twombly is disconnected from life; his work at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com is appreciated by his colleagues and his customers, crafting words to express the emotion they cannot, but while he can convey the feelings of others he himself feels nothing. Unable to bring himself to sign the papers which will finalise his divorce, he ignores invites from his friend Amy and instead plays video games in his apartment alone, late into the night.
Installing a new intelligent and adaptive artificial intelligence onto his computer, the OS1, Theodore instead finds companionship in the flirtatious female personality it adopts, naming itself Samantha and setting about organising his emails and encouraging him to experience life beyond his workplace and apartment block. After a disastrous blind date with a friend Amy set him up with, the evolving Samantha encourages Theodore to explore other avenues of friendship with her beyond simple conversation, but in her increasing complexity, integrated into multiple datastream and unconfined by physical restriction, Samantha’s capability swiftly grows beyond her parameters and her developing needs are beyond what Theodore, a singular human being, can match.
In To Die For and The Village, Joaquin Phoenix has demonstrated his ability to play characters who are disassociated, unable to connect with others, and Theodore shares that trait, but here the versatile actor creates a warmer character, not maladjusted but aware he is cut off from himself. Speaking of his failed marriage, he says “I think I hid myself from her and left her alone in the relationship,” later confirming that with the difficult relationship Catherine had with her over-critical parents, his failure amounted to abandonment.
Sharing the screen with Phoenix are the reliable Amy Adams as Amy, Rooney Mara as Catherine and Chris Pratt as Theodore’s supervisor, all working their hardest in underdeveloped supporting roles, but the film belongs to Phoenix, present in almost every frame, and Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, never seen but always in Theodore’s thoughts and in his top pocket, a safety pin elevating her so she can view the world through his smartphone camera.
Equally as realised as the performances is the environment Jonze has created, a placid utopia of smooth sandstone walls with mass transit through airy hubs with unobtrusive floor lighting. With no evidence of litter, graffiti, crime, poverty, war or hunger, beautiful cityscapes lit at night and unspoiled wilderness only a train ride away and eternally clement weather other than when new fallen snow is called for, it is a world as romantically idealised and desirable and yet unreal as Samantha herself.
While beautifully composed, the film is disappointing, the whole ultimately as unfulfilling as the simulation of love it represents. In another time and from another director this would have been a bawdy comedy, and it is appreciated that Jonze, never one to point the finger of shame on another, has taken a serious and thoughtful approach to a subject which ten years ago would have been inconceivable to most of the audience and made it totally believable, but like Samantha, the film is a novelty rather than a masterpiece, ultimately predictable because the algorithms driving it are hardwired towards an inevitable conclusion.
The repeated scenes of Theodore’s gaming life may strike a chord with those who are involved with the online gaming community, people who are justly attached to the characters they have invested hundreds of hours developing, who can be understandably anxious that a hardware failure or malwar
e attack could wipe out their digital life at a keystroke, a genuine wrenching loss of an idealised and irreplaceable part of their identity, but it fails to speak to a wider audience. That the film has received overwhelming attention and nominations in the run up to the Hollywood award season may be an indication that those running the dream factory are no longer able to discern real emotion from manufactured themselves.
Though it may inspire reconsideration over the true nature of the fractious relationship between Kerr Avon and Orac, at over two hours the simple storyline is stretched beyond what is necessary, and it is only the amiable cast who keep the film afloat. Consider instead two earlier creations which have approached the same territory through music, Kate Bush’s Deeper Understanding, originally released on The Sensual World and, ever the futurist, radically reinvented on her Director’s Cut, and the 1984 film Electric Dreams, also directed by a graduate of music videos. The latter is particularly pertinent for the scene where Madeline is comforted by her boyfriend Miles when her beloved cello is damaged beyond repair, telling her it was just a piece of wood, that anything about it that was special was what she herself had put into it.