In Her, Spike Jonze creates a completely new vision of the future. Just not new in the way you might expect.
When we speak, cinematically, about technology and our future, it is often in menacing tones. Our future movie selves tend to get malevolent things implanted in our bodies. Our cities are dark hellscapes where human survivors of... something cower, or they are sleek utopias where individual will is crushed by the giant corporations that now control all lifeforms. In his new feature, Jonze portrays a different, nicer kind of future, yet his film still deals with a menace that we absolutely know will haunt our tomorrows—loneliness, the longing to connect completely, and the difficulty of doing so.
The premise of the film, Jonze's fourth as a director, is simple. In a Los Angeles of an undefined but near future, a somewhat nerdy lost soul named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his operating system—an advanced artificial intelligence entity who calls herself Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson). Heartbroken from a recent split with his wife (Rooney Mara), Twombly stumbles across an ambient ad for Element Software’s new voice-controlled "OS1" system, and after a comically perfunctory installation process, is introduced to a disembodied being with an alluring voice and a smart, playful manner. Speaking from Twombly’s mobile device (he wears a wireless earpiece) and desktop, Samantha begins by organizing his contacts and emails (yes, still emails) and soon her presence comes to infiltrate his whole life. As "she" gains knowledge and self-awareness, the relationship progresses from friendship to love—the two take trips together, have (a kind of) sex and even go on double dates.
Given the premise, it’s a movie that could have been unbearably … clever. There are so many knowing, self-congratulatory extrapolations that people who spend time thinking about things like operating systems (that’s you and I, Fast Company reader) would have found amusing in such a film. But Jonze creates something weirder and, in some ways, more interesting than the elevator pitch promises. The film is a peculiar meditation on love and relationships, first, and for those who don’t care about such things, it’s a movie worth seeing for the entertaining, and in parts inspiring, way Jonze and company have envisioned AI, computer interfaces, and Los Angeles in the near future.
Foregoing hellscapes and brain implants, Jonze creates a recognizable, higher functioning world full of rich colors and texture—a world that looks more mid-century than end times. The mobile device that acts as conduit for the romance looks nothing like iPhone 8.4, but a lot like a vintage cigarette case, Los Angeles has no traffic and a useful public transit system that takes you to the beach, and men wear high-waisted pants and colorful shirts that make them look like hipster '40s screen stars. (Also, look for the owl scene. It’s only a moment but it might be one of the visual highlights of the year.)
It’s not surprising that Jonze would make a movie about a man's relationship with his phone—with his music video, commercial, film, and other creative work, he’s established himself as a cultural and visual innovator who's made us feel bad for a lamp, helped birth the meathead stunt genre as co-creator of the Jackass franchise and spawned a generation of imitators with his videos for The Beastie Boys. But he still delivers something that feels unexpected with Her. Here, Jonze speaks to us about writing a relationship movie, about crafting his own vision of tomorrow's tech design and about his own potential future—making video games.
Her is Jonze’s first solo screenplay. His first two films, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were written by Charlie Kaufman (the latter film based on a book by Susan Orlean) and he co-wrote the 2009 screen adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are with Dave Eggers. While he first conceived the premise for Her 10 years ago, he started writing notes over the last five years and sat down to write the script over a winter in 2010.
While Her seems narratively more straightforward than his first two films, it's deceptively layered and ends up raising many questions and issues relating to love, technology and the nature of consciousness (a few: Can love transcend the physical? Is technology isolating us or making us happier? Can machines ever feel? Would an advanced AI relationship just mean falling in love with yourself? Will computers supplant basic human experiences? Should computer monitors be encased in wood?)
The film’s AI device allows those questions to be explored with a fresh eye—Samantha’s new, evolving humanity gives her license to parse the fundamentals of life and relationships. She asks, "What’s it like to be alive in that room right now?" and "How do you share your life with someone?" in her efforts to learn about and connect with her human companion, but the audience is left to consider its own answers (and also to confront the provocative mini insights with which Jonze peppers the lovers' conversations: "The past is just stories we tell ourselves," "I’m afraid I’ve felt everything I’m going to feel").
Jonze says he didn’t set out to tackle big issues in writing the film, but instead to "write about everything I was trying to understand."
"I think I set out to write about everything that I was thinking about or confused about or trying to figure out," he says. "It was a relationship movie and all of the (questions) you’re talking about affect our relationships, affect our ability to connect or not connect."
To develop the film's AI entity, Jonze says that he and his team strove less for "scientific" authenticity and focused instead on what worked for the film's relationship and for what they would want to see in the technology. The process did start with research—Jonze mentions reading some of the leading thinkers on the evolution of computer consciousness— Kurzweil among them—and watching things like TED talks on brain mapping and engineering. "All of those things were interesting, and I’m sure there’s residue that exists in the movie, but as we started writing it became more of a relationship movie and more intimate than expository."
Jonze and production designer K.K. Barrett didn’t consult with OS and IU experts in designing the devices and computer interfaces and interactions that are central to the film. "We realized that we got to make our own world," he says. "We did think about it—should we be meeting with the people in Silicon Valley who are actually doing this?—and we realized we didn’t need to because ...there is something freeing about not worrying about what the future is going to be, and not worrying about where future tech design was doing to be and just letting ourselves create our own aesthetic and logic to that." Jonze says he wasn’t trying to make a movie about the future, but creating a future that felt right for the story. "Early on, we started to think about the devices and the computers as just things we’d want to have in our homes and have in our pockets. Because we were creating the whole feeling of the future what we wanted to create was this feeling that everything was nice and comfortable and tactile and warm—and even in this world there is still loneliness. That seemed to have a particular melancholy to it."
Jonze endows Twombly’s character with a job and a pastime that lend added dimension and wit to the film’s vision of the future. Twombly makes his living as a writer at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com (no ARG planned, apparently—that URL doesn’t lead anywhere). We first see him at work, composing and dictating heartfelt sentiments for clients that are rendered via voice-to-text magic as lovely cursive letters. And when he’s not at work, or hanging out with his friend Amy (Amy Adams), a game designer in a dysfunctional marriage, he’s at home playing a game on what seems like a slightly more advanced version of Kinect. His game of choice, projection mapped on his living room walls, is an alien-world adventure that he moves through with hilarious bunny-hop gestures and where he is accompanied by an adorable little creature with a foul mouth. Jonze says in writing the script he created a much more complex version of the game—one that he may yet end up making with Her producer Megan Ellison. "I always end up overwriting because I get so excited about an idea, so that video game had a way, way more complicated story," he says. "Like an entire story about going inside the psyche of aliens that had invaded the Earth. I actually want to make that video game because I have a whole premise for it." (Another game that appears in the film is Perfect Mom, where players win and lose based on whether their kids’ school snacks are healthy or their homes are clean enough.)
So will he make that game, film and game fans ask, excitedly? "Megan and I were talking about starting a video game company but it’s something that neither of us know from the inside; we just know it from being video game fans," he says. "If we can figure out the time, it would be something that would be exciting. It’s such a wide open medium where so much interesting stuff is happening."
[Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures]