Spike Jonze has made his name synonymous with interesting films. He has engaged, whether consciously or not, in a successful type of “brand management”. He is very much like the other expert brand managers who have caused their names to be a call to certain types of consumerism—the Dan Brown/Lindsay Lohan/Cam Newton types.
Would Mr. Jonze be upset if I said he was the… Kim Kardashian of interesting films?
I’ll leave that question for a future interviewer. Instead, I will take up something far more personal. Why did I have ambivalent feelings about the preview for Her UNTIL it was revealed it was the new film from the Interesting Spike Jonze? Obviously, whatever It is Spike Jonze is “the Kim Kardashian” of, is appealing to me.
Let’s see if we can illuminate that quality with a review.
1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)
Part A) The exposition in this script does pile up in places, that can’t be denied. It is, however, context appropriate and not the sort that derails reading momentum. We aren’t subjected to pages of backstory about this future Los Angeles we’re witnessing, or details from Theodore’s life before the story. I feel like Her does a great job of immersing the reader in the present and allowing the details to bead up from this surface.
The only exception to this general rule were the exchanges between Amy and Theodore after Amy’s breakup with Charles. The following from pages 59-60 is a great example:
God I’m such a jerk…
Don’t start, I’m warning you.
I feel like an awful person, but I
wanna say something…
Alright, look –
He picks up a plastic knife from their lunch.
For the next ten minutes, if you
say anything that sounds remotely
like guilt, I’m gonna stab you with
Okay, I’ll try.
I feel relieved. I have so much
energy, you know? I just wanna move
forward and I don’t care who I
disappoint. And I know that makes me an awful
person – now my parents are all
upset because my marriage is
falling apart, and they’re putting
it all on me.
Yeah, you’re always gonna
So fuck it. I feel good. Ish. For
me, I feel good. I even made a new
friend, I have a new friend. And
the absurd thing is she’s actually
an operating system. Charles left
her behind, but she’s totally
amazing, you know. She’s so smart.
She doesn’t see things only in
black and white. She sees this
whole gray area and she’s really
helping me explore it. You know, we
bonded really quickly and at first
I thought it was because she was
programmed to be that way, but I
don’t think that’s how they work.
There’s this guy I know who keeps
hitting on his and getting
Yeah, I was reading an article the
other day that romantic
relationships with OS’s are
Yeah? Well, there’s this woman in
my office who’s dating an OS and
the weird thing is, it’s not even
hers. She pursued him and he’s
somebody else’s OS.
It’s just so, like, weird, that I’m
bonding with an OS. Is that weird?
I don’t think so. Actually the
woman I’m seeing, Samantha, I
didn’t tell you before, but she’s
Really? You’re dating an OS? What’s
Actually, it’s great. I feel really
close to her. When I talk to her I
feel like she’s with me. I don’t
know, even when we’re cuddling,
like at night when we’re in bed and
the lights are off, I feel cuddled.
So wait – do you guys have sex?
Well, so to speak, yes. She really
turns me on. And I think I turn her
on. I don’t know, unless she’s
Anyone that has sex with you is
probably faking it.
Yeah, it’s true.
A big, irrepressible grin crosses his face as he thinks about
what to say.
Are you falling in love with her?
(excited, but hesitant)
Does that make me a freak?
No, no. I think it’s – I think
anybody that falls in love is a
freak. It’s a crazy thing to do in
the first place. It’s kind of a
form of socially acceptable
I find it fascinating that the kind of exposition we’re getting in this passage is… emotional in nature. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say, only in a Spike Jonze film would a writer spend time giving us inside information about the characters on the screen. In other words, Spike Jonze is a maker of Science Fiction films if and only if Science is given the largest interpretation possible. We need inside information about the characters in Spike Jonze movies because the characters in Spike Jonze movies don’t actually exist in the Real World.
The fact that Jonze can’t figure out a way to explain how Theodore feels about Samantha without having Theodore tell Amy how he feels about Samantha is a fault in the dialogue:
7 out of 10 points.
Part B) I enjoyed the running subtextual “theme” which courses through the entire script and increases in depth and velocity as the pages build.
Samantha functions as an Inverse-Turing Test. We are supposed to run her through our central character processor and see if we care about her like we care for ordinary human characters. I don’t know how much of what I’m about to write was intended by Mr. Jonze, but there is DEVASTATING brilliance in the idea which underlies Her. Simply stated, the script gives us:
Samantha [a character who we know from her introduction is] a machine designed to act and sound like a human. Very early in the script we take it as granted that she passes the Turing test easily. We can’t distinguish between Samantha [the character who lives in a computer in the scriptworld for Her] and Amy [the character who works for a video game company in the scriptWorld for Her].
The point is, Samantha is as virtual as Theodore and everyone else in her scriptworld. Why we care about Theodore answers the question of why we care about Samantha and, simultaneously, makes us wonder if we haven’t taken the Turing test so many times since infancy, we are now Predisposed to conclude: If it talks like a human then it is a human. And that, dammit to hell, is even more interesting than Mr. Jonze makes it out to be.
Humanity’s tolerance of virtual reality feels, after reading this script, like a topic our Science Fiction writers have barely just uncorked.
Who will be our generation’s Orwell, and make this topic fascinating and scary? [I propose we name the idea which Samantha symbolizes The Barish Test. There will be a strict and a loose iteration:
Strict: If a machine passes The Turing Test then, if a person interacts with the machine that passed The Turing Test as though it were a human, the person then passes The Barish Test. Essentially, the machine is now testing the person’s humanity.
Loose: Anyone who sees that there is no difference between caring about what happens to The Great Gatsby and caring about what happens to a machine named Samantha, passes The Barish Test.]
10 out of 10 points.
Part C) Character individuation? Let me begin my answer by saying I spent the majority of this script wondering WHAT THE FUCK was wrong with Spike Jonze. How could be so exceptionally stupid as to create an actual sexless character [Samantha] who acts so much like the typical male fantasy version of femininity. Samantha is the swimsuit model who wants to admire you, and celebrate you, and fold your laundry, and cook your food, and listen to you whine about the unbelievable fact that humanity has not yet appointed you Master of the Universe—the position you know you deserve… In other words, Samantha [THE WOMAN] does not exist in reality.
And I know that on the surface THIS COUNTS as clever, but the surface never lasts and I require that cleverness have bones and sinew beneath its skin if I’m going to praise it.
As I read, I felt my critical bile rising. I was going to excoriate this script based on its silly characterization of Samantha. The script was outrageously offensive to women for 95% of its pages.
The end rescued the rest. I will not comment on how much until we talk theme.
3 out of 10 points.
2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)
The answer to that question depends [in a way that it shouldn’t] on the fact that I knew I was reading a Spike Jonze script. So yes, I found the description of Theodore’s bizarrely appropriate job as a surrogate letter writer, followed by the quick flashback to his life with Catherine, and crowned by the totally non-sequiturish nature of his phone sex with Sexykitten to be an interesting 10 pages. They had the sort of seemingly inane playfulness with an undercurrent of restrained seriousness that I have come to expect from this writer.
If you had written these first 10? I’m not as sure:
12 out of 20 points.
3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)
Part A) I’ve just been staring at this blinking cursor for a while trying to think if there is ANYTHING I can count as a reveal in the first 50-60 pages. I continue to draw a blank.
After page 60 there is the finalization of the divorce between Theodore and Catherine [page 66] which is captured by the following lines:
Fine. We used to be married. He
couldn’t handle me so he wanted to
put me on Prozac. Now he’s madly in
love with his laptop.
The waitress doesn’t know what to say.
Well, if you heard the conversation
in context. What I was trying to
You wanted to have a wife without
the challenges of actually dealing
with anything real. I’m glad you
found someone. It’s perfect.
Immediately after this we have the [almost distressingly] weird sequence with Isabella from Complete Touch.
Lastly, there is the knowledge that Samantha is capable of 8000 simultaneous conversations, multiple love stories, and also has the ability to give “birth” to new “life”. [Two of the three reveals in the previous sentence come in the same paragraph.]
The most important thing in this list of reveals, however, is that ALL of them come after page 66. Before that… there is the desert of the real.
4 out of 10 points.
Part B) Theodore’s engine is well established and fits his personality perfectly. A person [and really he is meant to sub for everyone] who wants all his desires filled vicariously is the perfect person to fall in love with a computer.
10 out of 10 points.
Part C) I identify the pinch point as occurring on page 75:
He opens his eyes and looks at Isabella’s sexy, expectant
face. Their arms are still around each other. He sees
Isabella’s lips start to quiver. She tries to hide it with an
awkward, seductive smile.
(apologetic, breaking the
Samantha, I do love you, but – it’s
just – this feels strange.
Blake would be proud.
5 out of 5 points.
Part D) So now we can ask an EXTREMELY fair question: Does this exchange from pages 97-98:
Are you talking to anyone right
now? Other people or OS’s or
How many others?
Theodore is shocked, still sitting on the stairs, as crowds
of people pass by him. He’s looking at all of their faces. He
thinks for a moment.
Are you in love with anyone else?
What makes you ask that?
I don’t know. Are you?
I’ve been trying to figure out how
to talk to you about this.
How many others?
What? What are you talking about?
That’s insane. That’s fucking
Theodore, I know.
I know it sounds insane. But – I
don’t know if you believe me, but
it doesn’t change the way I feel
about you. It doesn’t take away at
all from how madly in love with you
…does that exchange justify the preceding characterization of Samantha as sexual plaything and maid?
I don’t know the answer to this one. I think this is because it will be determined on a case by case basis. If you find Samantha’s reveals about herself dramatic than you likely don’t mind the characterization of her up until her self-reveal.
If you’re like me, you may not be as persuaded. I’m not sure that the theme of Her, namely:
Love makes us real
is demonstrated by the characterization allowed Samantha. I think I can make this argument most forcefully if I state it in reverse. In other words, I fully understand why Theodore loves Samantha, I have no idea in hell why Samantha loves Theodore. That means, the story is not thematically complete:
6 out of 10 points.
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) The point stated above about the inverse Turing test is interesting. I don’t know for sure that Jonze meant it, but I’ll give him all the points for it any way:
5 out of 5 points.
Part B) The writing was decidedly mediocre. I can’t quite criticize it, but I don’t much feel like praising it either.
3 out of 5 points.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. (10 points)
I love the theme of Her. I wish some epistemologist would investigate the truth value of the proposition: Love makes us real. The idea there is an argument of the form:
I love therefore I am
is wildly appealing to a died-in-the-wool humanist like myself. However, the characterization of Samantha won’t stop bothering me:
7 out of 10 points.
Total Score: 67