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Where in the World is Samantha?

Where in the World is Samantha?

Her begins with four digital, metallic tones, seemingly reflecting two very different themes and directions the movie might appropriate: tradition and deeply conservative human values since the four tones remind one of the opening to Beethoven’s magnificent Fifth Symphony, and highly modern contemporary values because the flat, digital nature of the tones bring to mind Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spike Jonze’s superb film moves back and forth between these in a rhythm that is at one and the same time fascinating and creepy, as it asks the question over and over: Are human beings just complex machines, or do they stand above the machine in some mysterious way?

Her weaves into this discussion of theological anthropology a variety of other related themes: What is the nature of love? How does human nature relate to time—the past and the future, yes, but even the present? That question leads to an even deeper one: What is the nature of reality? Must it be physical in order to be human? What about the body; is it necessary to humanity? But, whoa. In my enthusiasm for this movie, I get ahead of myself.

Her is the story of Theodore Twombly, a mild-mannered thirty-something who works for a company called in a slightly futuristic LA. Theodore is a lonely man in the final stages of his divorce. To fill up his time, he plays video games and goes over to the apartment of two friends, who live in his building, one of whom is a friend from college named Amy, played by the ever-brilliant Amy Adams. Theodore spends a lot of time walking the streets of LA and riding its public transport, but the people who pack the public spaces of the city are just as isolated as he is because they are all wired into their smart phones, largely oblivious to the world around them.

Bored, Theodore one day on his way home from work sees a display for a new operating system, which is advertised as the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore downloads it and quickly falls in love with the OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Many encounters ensue—with blind dates, double dates with people at work, conversations with Amy, trips to the beach—but always at the center of the story is the dialogue between Theodore and Samantha, as she grows more and more “human” in her interactions with Theodore. The film is perfectly paced as it moves toward its denouement, and the script is extraordinary with dialogue that teeters, as most romantic movies do, on the edge of cliché but without ever going over that edge.

There are many reasons to love this film. The technical aspects of the film are perfect. The location (actually Shanghai) feels in the future but not too much. The direction is crisp and well-conceived; even the old trope of swirling around in a circle with your love is given new meaning, when the viewer realizes that the pov is that of the OS, Samantha. The colors and clothes contribute nicely to the future-but-not-too-far feeling, though the ubiquitous wool pants everyone seems to wear are a little dorky.

But what makes this movie great are two things: the performances by the actors and the extraordinary questions raised by a script that is unafraid to be wordy and to use those words to ask meaningful, serious questions. Joaquin Phoenix disappears into the role of Theodore, and he is fast proving himself to be one of the best actors we have today. Amy Adams and Rooney Mara (mostly in flashback as Theodore’s wife, Catherine) serve the movie well in their supporting roles; they are entirely present, when called upon to contribute. Perhaps the most amazing performance is that of Johansson, who without the benefit of bodily movement creates a character that is thoroughly believable as the OS system, Samantha. That voice continues to raise the hairs on the back of my neck, when I only think about it.

The philosophical questions abound and are explored in virtually every scene of the film without ever diminishing its entertainment value. Mention of one should suffice.

The theme of reality versus unreality is introduced at the start of the film.  Theo, in full frontal extreme facial close-up, is saying what one at first thinks are words of love to his beloved (you, since he is looking directly into the camera). As the lens widens ever so slowly, we realize he is dictating a letter. At this point the viewer is still sweetly affected because the language is so beautiful and the performance seems so intimate and loving. But, increasingly, the creepiness begins to set it because the viewer realizes that Theo is dictating to his computer a letter to someone he has never met, as if it were from someone else whom he has never met.

What makes the scene so disturbing is that Theo is so good at this, and has been doing it so long, that he experiences absolutely no qualms in the whole idea of entering virtually into the real, intimate lives of other people and allowing his “virtual” thoughts and dreams become surrogates for theirs. The horror of Theo’s workplace as a corporate factory for virtual hopes is reinforced as the camera eventually includes his colleagues dictating letters of thanks, encouragement, joy, sadness—every emotion one normally identifies with intimacy—with their voices overlapping as the ideas go out into cyberspace to be printed up by computers in the form of cherished, once-in-a-lifetime letters.

From this point the audience is led on a journey designed to ask the deepest questions about what real intimacy is. Can love be disassociated from the body? Can a computer program become human?

I see a lot of movies, and it has been a long time since I came out of the theater bursting with desire to talk to someone about the movie I’ve just seen. That happened with Her. A discussion built around this Academy Award nominee cannot fail to raise interesting questions. Faith, except in a human sense, does not enter into Spike Jonze’s film, but it is everywhere on the edges of the questions I had. After all, what else is there, really?

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