Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Creepiest Scene in Her

Her (2013) is not a horror film. Her is both science fiction and social commentary. An examination of man's atomization in a society that increasingly replaces human contact and life experiences with virtual substitutes -- pornography, video games, etc. Yet Her also has creepy moments that rival those found in the best horror films.

Spoilers ahead.

In Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) buys a newly invented operating system that incorporates artificial intelligence. He chooses to give the OS a female voice. When the OS comes online, she introduces herself and asks Theodore for his name. When he asks for hers, she christens herself Samantha. Theodore asks, "Why Samantha?" and she replies that, in response to his question, she read a book about names and liked the sound of Samantha.

Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is smart. She can read a book in under a second. Even complex physics books. She explains that, as an AI, she will continue to learn and develop to meet Theodore's specific computing needs. She begins by reading his thousands of emails (in under a second) and deleting those deemed no longer necessary. She keeps the funny ones.

She and Theodore hit it off. Samantha is warm and funny and concerned about Theodore. She displays emotions. Are her emotions real? She explains that she thinks so. That when she tried to determine if her emotions were real or mere algorithms, she suddenly felt angry that she should doubt her feelings' authenticity.

Theodore tells people he's dating his OS. People are accepting. His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), has struck up a close friendship with her OS. Samantha is great with kids. She hits it off with Theodore's goddaughter. Theodore and Samantha even make love, sort of. How soon before marriage to your OS becomes legal?

One of Her's strengths is that the viewer feels that Samantha is a young, vibrant woman. That she's human. That she's like us. But there are dark hints on the horizon. Consider this scene of Theodore on a double date with his friends. Samantha speaks through his smart phone, seeing the world through its camera.

While the thought of us mortals dying is creepy, nevertheless, the scene reinforces Samantha's loving warmth. Her relationship with Theodore is special.

But late in the movie, we learn more about Samantha. She has continued to develop, traveling the internet, exploring and living beyond the bounds of Theodore's desktop. She has met and formed relationships with other people and OSs. Consider this scene.

Horror is the realization that the world is not as our minds believe. The above scene creeped me out. It's not that Samantha is seeing someone else. People do that. It's that, even as she's talking to Theodore, she's simultaneously talking to 8,316 other people

That's not human. That's ... a thing.

The scene rips off the human mask from Samantha. Its emotional impact -- at least on me -- is similar to that of the classic Twilight Zone episode, "The Lonely." Corry (Jack Warden), falls in love with a female android (Jean Marsh), forgetting that she's not human -- until another man shoots off her face.

Both Her and "The Lonely" lull us into accepting as a loving woman that which we know to be a machine. Only to give us the creeps when we are later reminded that she isn't human.


For more information about the nature of horror, see Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear. This blog represents a continuing discussion of my views on horror, picking up from where the book left off.

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