Well, it pains me to do this. But I’m going to renounce what I said in an earlier post, titled: “Affairs With Robots — Does That Even Work Anymore?” Read the post here.
In that post, I came to the conclusion that the answer is “not really.” But last night, I finally got to see the Spike Jonez film “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson. Technically, the female love interest wasn’t a robot, but a computer operating system. But we’re still talking about an electronic simulation of an actual, flesh-and-blood woman. And the answer as to whether it works is an emphatic “yes.”
I was inspired to write the earlier post after watching a performance of “Comic Potential,” which is a comic love story set in the near future about a guy who meets and falls in love with a beautiful female robot. “Comic Potential” was cute and entertaining, but pretty lightweight. It also took a fairly trite approach to what’s already a hoary science fiction cliché. (None of this is a dig at the community theater company that performed it, by the way. They did a great job.) The female robot is essentially an idealized male fantasy. A beautiful naif whose only flaw is her fragile innocence and her need to be taught the ways of human love. (Though that last one ain’t exactly a failing, ifyaknowwhatImean … wink wink, nudge nudge.)
A few conflicts come along. A few people try to tell the hero that he can’t love her because she’s only a machine. (Boo! Hiss!) But in the end, true love prevails.
My contention in the earlier post is that the modern digital age has killed that romantic scenario by making it borderline feasible. Men really do become romantically obsessed with electronic simulations of women, as evidenced by all the erotic Lara Croft fan fiction in existence. And the result is more sad than romantic and inspiring.
Yet “Her” works so well precisely because the film acknowledges that reality. I won’t give you a full replay of the plot. Very briefly, Phoenix gets an advanced new operating system — voiced by an unseen Johansson — with a simulated personality so complex that it’s indistinguishable from an actual human. The two fall in love.
That’s a very simple explanation that doesn’t do this psychologically complex movie justice. It has some extremely funny moments, but doesn’t go for any of the easy, cheap laughs that the premise could generate. Instead, it functions mainly as a bittersweet exploration of how the digital age has simultaneously eased and deepened our loneliness.
I’m not generally big on romantic stories. Nothing wrong with them. Just not my thing. But I have to say that this movie was wonderfully, joyfully, achingly romantic. Its ability to achieve that effect when one of the romantic partners was just a voice emanating from a computer and a hand-held digital device is testimony to both Phoenix’s and Johansson’s talents. Don’t want to give away any spoilers here. By the end, the film has explored some mind-bending ideas about the nature of consciousness without ever losing its tight and personal focus on the two main characters.
So bottom line: I looked at an old science fiction trope and concluded that it needs to be retired. Spike Jonze looked at it, realized it’s more relevant than ever, and made a brilliant work of art from it.
Guess that’s why he’s one of the greatest and most visionary directors of his generation, and I’m … me.