“Near the start of his relationship with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Her, Samantha the OS (Scarlett Johansson) helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) play a videogame. Called “Alien Child” by the filmmakers, the game seems familiar enough to be plausible to viewers, yet foreign enough to induce estrangement. The same could be said of the film’s high-waisted trouser fashions, improbable high rises and mass transit in future Los Angeles, and Theodore’s job as an outsourced personal correspondence writer. This is not our world, but it might be.
“The viewer sees the game’s uncanniness most clearly when Theodore controls the helmeted creature in its holographic world. In a burlesque of recent “natural” physical interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect, Theodore moves the game character by walking the fingers of his own downturned hands to operate the character’s feet. The act is ridiculous; it looks like dog paddling, or rifling through paper files, or prancing like a show horse.
“The effect defamiliarizes the game even as it casts Theodore as a washout. His cumbersome inner life is expressed through his awkward interface with a computer game. At the same time, the film juxtaposes that ungainly interface with the natural, seductive draw of Samantha. Why would one dog-paddle a computer when instead one can flirt with Scarlett Johansson to operate one?
“The “Alien Child” video game scene serves a specific narrative purpose in Her: It demonstrates a halfway point between the impersonal, voice-operated interfaces that pervade its handheld devices and work terminals, and the empathetic artificial intelligences exemplified by cybernetic OS1 individuals like Samantha. The alien child not only possesses enough of a personality to ridicule Theodore, but also it can respond to the environment—insulting his prospective blind date, or calling the incorporeal Samantha “fat.”
“But despite this slow and steady ramp from familiar to unfamiliar forms of computer intelligence, Her never really challenges the viewer to imagine what it would be like to enter into a relationship with a computer operating system—whether a platonic or a romantic one. At the end of the day, Samantha is just a cipher for Scarlett Johansson—an actress whose voice is so characteristic that no reasonable viewer could possibly dissociate one her from the other. When Samantha starts worrying about incorporeality, it’s nearly impossible for the viewer to take her seriously. Samantha’s vocal reality is so strongly affixed to the rest of her famous body that the film ultimately fails to invite the viewer to ponder what it would be like to fall in love with an operating system. Instead, all we can do is ponder falling in love with a woman we’ve never seen.”
Text: You Are Mountain, Atlantic Monthly