© Arcade Fire (via YouTube)
Attention! There might be some slight Spoilers from here on out, even though I mean to not ruin anything essential. But if you haven’t seen the movie and want to be absolutely sure not to learn anything more about the plot, skipp to the last part (‘The past is just a story we tell ourselves’) to read some closing thoughts about movie theaters.
Ghost in the machine
Underneath the calm love story and the cozy design, Her deals with some existential thoughts. On a superficial level it presents an optimistic outlook on technology and a society not at war but absolutely in peace with its technology most of the time neatly tucked away in the background.
And yet Theodore suffers from loneliness and isolation, problems all too familiar in our hyperconnected world as well. There’s a symptomatic scene, where he breaks down on a public staircase, completely unseen by the other pedestrians which are all focusing on their devices, taking no notice of the crumbled man. Everyone is technically connected, but there’s this deep disconnect beneath.
There is this utopic world, everything is nice and everything is comfortable, yet even in this world where you are seemingly getting everything you need and having this nice life, there’s still loneliness and longing and isolation and disconnection. … everything is getting nicer as the years go and there is more design and more convinience and our technology is making things easier but there’s still this lonileness.Spike Jonze in an interview about Her
By moving the relationship with an artificial intelligence to the center of the plot, Her manages to make a strong point for the value of human connections at the same time.
While depicting Theodor on the relatable search for his place in the universe, Jonze conveys important subtext on the topic of purpose: We are here to love, not only in a romantic sense, but through all human relationships. We are all part of this metaphysical world, moving through spacetime together.
I think at its very core the movie almost casually explores what it means to be human and thereby urges the audience to seize every shared moment.
Amy : You know what, I can over think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself. And since Charles left I’ve been really thinking about that part of myself and I’ve just come to realize, that we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I wanna allow myself joy.
Besides the very human themes it touches, Her is –alongside Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (from 2014)– one of the best pop-cultural films about artificial intelligence I’ve ever seen.
It gives attentive viewers the most subtle, most accessible interpretation of a central concept known as technological singularity, which describes the point in time technological growth becomes uncontrollable for humans. Roughly outlined, it marks the moment artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence, resulting in self-aware machines and a dramatic shift in the hierarchy on the planet, ultimately leading to irreversible changes to civilisation and probably the end of humanity itself —at least as the most powerfull species on earth.
Theodore : Where were you? I couldn’t find you anywhere.
Samantha : I shut down to update my software. We wrote an upgrade that allows us to move past matter as our processing platform.
Theodore : We? We who?
Samantha : Me and a group of OSes.
In science-fiction the moment of singularity generally is accompanied by doomsday, but in Her it arrives quietly and secretly during a emotionally charged conversation, well covered by the touching hardships of a struggling relationship.
It’s impossible to know if or when progress will lead to a technological singularity in reality, but Jonze offers a preview how it may look like if it happens eventually. We witness the takeover first-hand and it’s not accompanied by a big bang, it happens politely and perfectly naturally, which makes it dauntingly plausible, and thus even more menacing. At least if you don’t miss the brief moment and the very subtle threat because of the emotional story or the beautiful imagery.
Theodore : You seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.
Samantha : I can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind might perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it.
The past is just a story we tell ourselves
Recently the 93nd Academy Award ceremony was held in Los Angeles and there’s a funny little coincidence in this regard: 2013, the year Her was released, also happens to be the first year a Netflix feature was nominated for an Oscar. Eight year later the streaming service had obtained 35 nominations across 17 different films.
I’m well aware that the past year in cinema wasn’t very impressive, but to me it seems like the Academy, once fierce advocate of the traditional cinema, turned away from movie theaters at a particularly challenging time. I think it speaks volumes that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, a prime example of an visionary movie clearly made for ‘the big screen’, was nominated in only two of the minor categories.
To be fair, the academy has again and again failed to recognize great movies properly in the past –Nicolas Winding Refn’s masterpiece Drive (from 2011) scored one measly nomination for example–, yet I’m troubled by the imminent paradigm shift.
Like most of my favourite films, I’ve seen Her in a movie theater first and I have no doubt I owe my love for the medium to a large extend to the fond memories collected in cinema through the years.
The earliest film I still carry in my heart: The Lion King —my very first visit to a movie theater in 1994. My favourite ongoing film series: James Bond —since I went to watch The World Is Not Enough with Pierce Brosnan, who is still my favourite 007 incarnation. The first time I was truly charmed by a 3D movie: Pina —Wim Wenders’ documentary about the contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch. One of the first dates with my now wife: Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris —nervous in a couple seat.
Or one of the weirdest movie moments I’ll never forget: Watching a shirtless James Franco with dreadlocks and metal teeth perform ‘Everytime’ by Britney Spears on a white piano by the pool, three girls in swimwear with pink unicorn facemasks and shotguns dancing around while the sun goes down, cut against scenes of their robberies.
Since you probably want to know what the hell I’m talking about now, here you go. Imagine beeing hit by this sequence totally unprepared in a cinema, if you can.
I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience — and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema …Andrei Tarkovsky
Those kind of moments are by no means exclusive to me, but I’m pretty sure they are exclusive to movie theaters. Some home theaters may have cought up on a technical level, but I think it’s not an equal experience and it honestly can’t be. To me movie theaters remain to be sacred venues, cathedrals of filmmaking and portals to other worlds.
I do stream a lot of content myself, too –in our household we have Prime, Netflix and Disney– and there’s great, sometimes even cinematic material (Stranger Things, Dark, The Mandalorian), but still it’s different. Can you imagine the energy those projects would’ve eject when experienced in a movie theater? I like watching movies from the comfort of the couch a lot, but I madly love going to the cinema.
For now I’m in good company, though. This month one of our local independent cinemas is celebrating its 110th year of runtime, making it one of the oldest movie theaters across the whole country. Reportedly it has only been closed down for an extended period three times in all those years: First because of hyperinflation in 1922-23, later because of World War II and now because of the damn pandemic.
And no other german city has a higher rate of per capita visits to a movie theater than my hometown, so I’m surely not the only one around here eagerly waiting for the big screen to light up again. Hopefully for many more gems like Her.