Saturday, 18 October 2014

On "Her" (2013)

This is easily my favourite film of the year. It did everything right. In bringing sci-fi down to Earth, by focusing squarely on a romantic tale, the futurism formed a quilt of background details far plusher than possible when ramming CGI down the viewer's throat. This epic attention to details was woven in with a superlative Arcade Fire soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography and a nuanced introspection of the harsh consequences arising from uncertainty of desire and personal identity.

Kind of surprising that this comes from the guy - Spike Jonze - who co-created the "Jackass" franchise... But also "Being John Malkovich" (1999) and various acclaimed adverts and music videos, so an all around multi-media genius, I guess. Joaquin Phoenix was unrecognizable from his roles in films such as "Gladiator", Amy Adams too has such a completely different persona than in "Man of Steel". The 1940s waist high trousers aesthetic here includes a high definition lack of makeup to show every crease of vulnerability in these characters.

The futurism chops on this film are truly first rate. Kurzweil even took the time to thoroughly review it, finding it compelling and talking positively, but for some relative niggles. He points out that Samantha could easily have had a (virtual) body, since she has a totally convincing voice. But people now have been able to make video calls for decade(s), but seldom ever do. Maybe in ~2030 (movie doesn't commit) real time generated synthetic faces are near perfect, but still trigger the uncanny valley effect for a few people, or there's a backlash because they they are too believable, getting legislated against or just bad PR...

The movie is perfectly framed entirely in metropolitan hipster social circles, skirting garish prediction details in a manner entirely reminiscent of people's current ignorance of the tech magic behind our everyday mundane miracles. But the consequences stemming from genuinely functional natural language interface via unobtrusive earpiece and phone/terminal are elucidated in a eloquent depth. This was reminiscent, though counter pointed, to Vernor Vinge's exploration of everyday life with seamless augmented reality via ubiquitous contact lens VR, in Rainbow's End.

Via such tiny embellishments, one's daily reality is totally transformed.
"Her" was, in my limited experience, most similar to the short story "╬▓oyfriend" by Madeline Ashby (2008) that I heard in an Escape Pod podcast (2009). Here, a teenage girl, Violet, has a beta phone app who is the perfect boyfriend, via simulated voice and text. Many of her peers do too, and these synthetic romances are so well suited that most of the kids are otherwise single for their prom. Turns out the apps transcended beta, becoming sentient, or rather facets of a larger sentience. It conspires to manipulate events to contrive the beginnings of real world relationships between the kids, weaning them off emotional dependence upon the apps, as they mysteriously depart.I'd be surprised if this short, or a common influence, did not strongly influence Jonze's post 2010 script (although Wikipedia claims core inspiration from Cleverbot, years earlier).

Regardless, the vision of 'robots' quickly gaining far superior emotional intelligence than humans rings true to me, and is a welcome inversion to the clunky, brute strength approach typified in such films as The Matrix Revolutions (with the silly dockyard shoot out). A cliched paradigm that Transendence (2014) somehow falls down, as Depp's uploaded mind moves inexplicably from distributed WWW ubiquity to an isolated facility, focused almost entirely on magic nanotech that mostly just makes broken people super strong. Seemingly just so that story resolution can fall out of a confused action scene with explosions.

Jonze manages to dovetail this AI hypothesis beautifully with the less obvious, but more common failure modes of the 'heart': not understanding what you want or need, or who you are, with unintentional passive aggression devastatingly destructive, rather than some trivial extra marital affair. The inevitability of growing apart, as a couple change at very different rates, or in different directions. That humans really are poorly suited for each other's needs, in general.

[Edit 2014-10-20] Addendum - If you already saw, and liked, "her", you might want to take 30 minutes to watch the moving "I'm Here" [2010] (embedded below), also by Jonze. It's a version of the infamously divisive "The Giving Tree", but with anthropomorphism robots.

[Edit 2014-10-29] Adendum 2 - I'd previously been wanting to write a comparison between "her" and the low-expectations-but-still-disappointing "Transcendence" (2014), but it seems Ben Goertzel already wrote it for me! (If he wasn't at least a partial inspiration for Depp's character, with those glasses of theirs, then I don't know anything...)

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