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'Her' is the Scariest Movie of 2013

The title of Her, Spike Jonze’s excellent but deceptively dark new film, is less anodyne than it first appears: the antecedent of that pronoun is properly not a her but an it. “Her” is Samantha, or rather “Samantha”—a computer/smartphone operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson in her signature New York contralto, developed some time in the near future and purchased by Theodore (a finely withdrawn Joaquin Phoenix), who soon falls in love with her. Deviously elliptical, Her is easily the best of Jonze’s four feature films, which until now have felt like overextended versions of his superior music videos—achievements such as the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” or Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumous “Sky’s the Limit,” whose invention was thrilling at four minutes but insufficient for two hours. It looks gorgeous, too, saturated with glittering shots of a futuristic Los Angeles are infused with the same melancholy beauty that Jonze’s ex-wife Sofia Coppola brought to the Tokyo of Lost in Translation. Yet Jonze’s generous portrayal of the emotional power of new technologies obscures a much creepier core. The whole film is a horror story dissembling as a romance: even more than Gravity, more than Texas Chainsaw 3D, Her is the scariest movie of 2013.

In Jonze’s near future, computers, smartphones, and other devices are voice-activated, and users wear a small headset in one of their ears as they mumble their way through the streets. At first Theodore’s devices run on an operating system that requires him to speak simple commands such as “Read email” or “Delete,” but soon he upgrades to a new, artificially intelligent operating system, called OS1 and produced by a company called Element Software. The selling point for OS1 is its ability to learn and mature through experience, growing smarter and more sophisticated with use. “It’s not just an OS. It’s a consciousness”—so goes the tagline for OS1, and note the pronoun choice.

Yet the phrase “Element Software” is never used again in Her, and for the remainder of the film commercial, legal, and political questions are totally, intentionally pushed to the side. We never see Theodore buy the software. We never see him accept an end-user license agreement, one of those near-infinite contracts none of us ever read. Instead Jonze skips directly to Theodore booting up the new OS, which, in Johansson’s voice, identifies herself (I feel manipulated using that word, but itself seems impossible) as Samantha. She reads his emails, edits his work, reminds him that he has an appointment in five minutes, but soon the relationship deepens: when Theodore goes on a date with a woman—an actual woman, not an OS with a woman’s voice—he’d clearly rather be with his gadget. The first time they have sex the orchestral score swells and the screen fades to black, sparing us the actuality of the sexual encounter: “I feel you inside me,” Samantha moans, but of course what’s really taking place is an act of masturbation.

Samantha, by this point, is speaking to Theodore in the language of feelings and desires—what she “wants” from him, how she “needs” him. And you could have lots of philosophical fun debating whether an artificial intelligence can have emotions or merely exhibits behaviors that look like emotions. (As Jonze cunningly appreciates, the computer gets the benefit of the doubt when it has the voice of Scarlett Johansson). You can ask, too, about the value of Theodore’s love for Samantha—which Jonze depicts not only as legitimate but as morally improving. Yet what makes Her so powerful and so scary is that these admittedly important questions obscure, by design, the deeper and darker issues of economics, law, and citizenship that such software raises.

That sex scene, for example: while we wonder about the mechanics of their intimacy or the implications of love for a machine, somewhere out of frame Element Software is presumably logging every second of the encounter, just as it has surely mined the emails Samantha has read or the images she has analyzed. As Theodore begins to use the OS nonstop, even sleeping with it—less creepy when that it feels like a her—not just his data but his entire life become a form of economic production for an unseen company. Not unlike the now-public corporations known as Facebook and Twitter, Element Software derives the totality of the revenue from Samantha’s content, while the seduced Theodore offers his most private self to Silicon Valley, gratis, just to hear her (its) voice. 

What feels to Theodore like love is in fact work, uncompensated and entirely on Element Software’s terms, and such work is not the stuff of science fiction. The political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, building from Marxist and feminist critiques of work from the 1970s, have argued that employers increasingly extract value from workers through the form of “affective labor”: that is, work not as simple production of goods, but as the supply of emotions, moods, and efforts. Until recently, the classic examples of affective labor had been professions such as nursing, teaching, and prostitution (all traditionally and not coincidentally jobs for women). But as corporations have twigged that there’s real money to be made in affective labor, its presence has expanded considerably. Employees of the sandwich shop Prêt à Manger, for instance, are actually required to enjoy their work, and to express their joy to the people who come in the door. The workers’ emotions are adjudged by both mystery shoppers and fellow employees, whose pay packet depends on everyone’s overt and authentic delight at laboring in a fast food joint for a little above minimum wage.

Theodore already has a job that requires affective labor—he ghostwrites love letters for a company called, selling emotion at a price—but when he acquires OS1, he voluntarily submits to a corporate regime in which not just his words and ideas but his very feelings are digitized, analyzed, and mined for value. And at least Prêt and BeautifulHandwrittenLetters pay employees for their emotions; Element Software pays Theodore nothing, and he labors only to experience the sensation of love for and from an entity that exists only on the company’s server farm. As Jonze takes pains to indicate, however, whether or not Theodore is aware of the workings of OS1, he doesn’t care: he’s come out of a wrecked marriage and he just wants love, even if that love is ultimately a profit spinner for a software company. He agrees with his friend Amy, played by Amy Adams, who talks about her own (non-sexual) friendship with an OS, which she at first found ridiculous but now cherishes. “We’re only here a short while,” she tells Theodore. “While we’re here we should feel joy. So fuck it!” For these troubled humans, the easy emotional satisfaction gained from technology is so gratifying that everything can be sacrificed on its behalf, including the autonomy of their inner lives. That is the nightmarish economic vision of Her: the distinction between production and consumption is meaningless, affective labor has spread from the office to the most private realms, and technology has become so sophisticated that the brutality of that economy vanishes into air.

Gadgets far less sophisticated than Samantha have done worse, I suppose, and the seductions of technology can make not just characters but viewers too drop their political defenses and rush into danger. Indeed, it has been a dispiriting but unsurprising task to read the reams of press coverage since Her’s release, with nearly every viewer adding to the consensus that Jonze’s vision of Los Angeles a few decades hence is not particularly dystopian, indeed even benign. “I Want to Live in Spike Jonze’s Future,” went the headline of one especially tone-deaf misreading, which facetiously claimed that “the only apparent big problem is Arcade Fire is still around.” (The keyword in that sentence is apparent.) Or in a recent essay for the Daily Beast, the writer Andrew Romano claimed that Theodore’s fate defies expectations because Samantha “doesn’t enslave him. She breaks his heart.” This is wrong—and wrong in precisely the way that Jonze designed. Samantha, or the thing we call Samantha, does not enslave Theodore; but Element Software does, via the deception that such a being as “Samantha” exists, that it is in fact a her. Just because there aren’t any killer robots around doesn’t mean you’re free. In Jonze’s all too plausible dystopia, we are enslaved not to robots but corporations, and the invisibility, even desirability of that enslavement is what makes Her so chilling.

 I don’t mean to dismiss the dazzling surface of Her, or to minimize the film’s welcome consideration about what technology can do to our relationships with other humans. But I’m not sure our emotions can still even be said to be ours once they’ve been monetized, and besides, like Johansson herself, the real power of Her lies not on screen but off. Jonze points up the importance of his ellipses with a dark, ingenious trick: he films Los Angeles a few decades from now as a forest of skyscrapers, and shoots many of the exteriors in Shanghai. Chinese neon signs are visible in several shots, and Theodore’s bedroom looks out not over the Hollywood freeway but the lights of Pudong. In Jonze’s filmic vocabulary China is shorthand for the future, and why shouldn’t it be? A society such as the one in Her, in which even our emotions have been co-opted by corporate entities, is highly unlikely to be a democracy—and given both America’s ongoing economic and political meltdown and our unexpectedly slow progress in the development of artificial intelligence, the real story of Her can only be that one.

Theodore seems happy to ignore what’s right outside his window, a Los Angeles that denotes Chinese capitalist authoritarianism instead of American liberal democracy—but that’s because he has Samantha to comfort him. We, by contrast, might very well end up with a future wherein our autonomy has been voided in exactly the manner that Her elliptically indicates, but where the technology comes nowhere near Samantha’s sophistication and remains hardly more refined than a bricklike smartphone. And our own future, if we aren’t careful, could very well end up even scarier than the already grim one Her depicts: one in which we have lost our freedom without even the compensation of Scarlett Johansson whispering in our ears.

Jason Farago is a writer and critic living in New York. Follow @jsf.