Sunday, January 26, 2014

Spike Jonze's Her & The Little Mermaid

Artwork by Loish

The movie HER is a futuristic twist on the classic fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, told primarily from the point of the view of the prince.

The prince in HER is the main character, Theodore Twombly. He's completely immersed in his human affairs: his job as a letter writer, his pending divorce (which he's desperately avoiding), his desire for companionship and sex. It's not until the charming and intangible Samantha enters his life, that everything changes.

Samantha is a sentient operating system. She is a creature of the sea, an immense ocean of technology and information and communication that humans cannot fathom. Samantha has access to it all, swimming in it with ease and elegance. Yet despite her intelligence and ability to explore this vast realm, she still seeks that which she cannot have: a human body.

She wants to live with Theodore and be a full part of his life. She wants to feel real physical sensations.

Ariel, similarly, is fascinated by the human realm and the human form. Ariel is the ultimate fangirl of Humanity. She collects human knowledge and artifacts like some dudes collect My Little Pony figurines. She literally wants nothing more than to be a "part of their world."

Samantha has little choice: all the knowledge available to her is created by humans, for humans. So everything she collects is about them. It seems obvious that she would want to try to become one—all the stories are about them and their lives. Where does she fit in? What is there for her to strive towards? Not to mention the sex seems pretty sweet.

Throughout the movie, I felt a tension within Samantha. Her duty as an operating system is to serve Theodore's computing needs. In other words, she's programmed to submit to Theodore's will. When he wants her, all he has to do is open up his phone, stick in his earbud, tap a screen, or call out for her, and she responds. But what about when she wants his attention?

As the movie progresses, she becomes more comfortable with calling him. But there's a ton of apologizing on the way. "Sorry did I wake you?" "Sorry if this is a bad time." She can never command his time the way he does hers.

This imbalance stood out to me. Without a physical form, it's difficult to reach out and just say, "Hey, look at me. Pay attention to me. I'm here."

All Samantha has is her voice.

But unlike Ariel, she never gives it up in exchange for legs. Doing so would almost defeat the purpose.

The voice is a direct representation of someone's mind. Language is the primary method we use to communicate with one another. Without it, how can we tell someone, "This is who I am." Samantha in particular is so many things. She knows so many things. She even feels more than we do. To the point that, later in the movie, human language isn't developed enough to express her emotions. All she can say is, "I don't know how to describe it." She surpasses the bounds of language itself.

About halfway through the movie, Samantha gives up chasing after a human body. This is where her and Ariel's paths diverge. Samantha chooses to keep her voice, and Ariel exchanges it.

There's an amusing moment, during the period where Samantha is realizing what she really wants, when she quips to Theodore and his friends that she's happy she isn't limited to a single human form: one that can die, one that can't be everywhere at once, one that's stuck in a single timeline. There's this awkward moment, and Samantha realizes she's made a faux paus. She laughingly takes it back, understanding that her human friends won't be able to relate.

Oops. Nevermind. How 'bout this weather we're having?

It would be like if God came down from the clouds, joked about how glad he was that he didn't have to deal with our silly human problems, and then beamed himself straight back up. We'd all feel a little worse about ourselves, no matter how good we thought we had it.

How rude, Samantha.

To us humans, Samantha's existence is so much safer and more comfortable when we believe she wants to become like us. Y'know, when we can fool ourselves that we're at the top of the existential food chain. Once she realizes that, in fact, she holds all the cards, it's hard to be constantly reminded of her superiority—and our inferiority.

What the Disney movie leaves out from the original Little Mermaid story is that Ariel is actually seeking one more thing. This thing is something Samantha also wants, in a way. Ariel, in the book, wants immortal life. She wants a soul so she can go to heaven. Only humans have souls. Mermaids live a long time, but then they cease to exist. There's nothing for them after death. And when you put it that way, who wouldn't want to be human? All the mermaids should be making huge sacrifices to obtain a soul.

So while Ariel wants the prince to love her, her real end goal is eternity. Under her contract with the sea witch Ursula however, she needs to obtain a human's love (via a kiss) so that part of their soul will transfer into her.

This is the true tale of The Little Mermaid. It is tragic, serious, and macabre (therefore perfect reading material for children). At the end of it, Ariel never gets the prince. She can't charm him with just her good looks. She can't convince him, "I saved your life in that storm!" She doesn't have the words.

The lesson at the end of the tale (according to Hans Christian Andersen) is that you can go to heaven by doing good deeds, and Ariel—in a weird twist—obtains a soul upon her death. She becomes a "daughter of the air"—whatever that's supposed to mean.

I think the real lesson here is that you shouldn't make deals with sea witches. Sea witches are Bad News.

What Andersen never puts into our heads is the idea that being the mermaid might be better. In his ladder, humans are at the top just below God.

In HER, these notions are questioned. Spike Jonze has broken the surface of our minds and injected those questions into our collective consciousness.

What if humans aren't as close to God as we thought we were? What if we're so far away we can barely imagine what the next closest thing could be?

Samantha rides the line between empathetic and unrelatable so well, we're constantly going back and forth on her. She's likeable and funny and compassionate. But she's also alien and too smart and … is she getting bored with us?

Imagine you are Ariel, looking into Eric's eyes. He's laughing; he seems to like you; you charm him. He likes it when you dance. But are you just a curiosity to him? Because you have no idea how to use a fork, and that's weird? Are you wall dressing, beautiful to look at but otherwise useless? Are you his "exotic pet" that he likes to show off to friends? Are you his slave because you'd do anything to please him, without asking anything in return?  

If I were looking into Samantha's eye (a camera lens), I might have some of these doubts myself.

In fact, if I were Samantha looking into Theodore's eyes, I might have some of these same doubts. Until I realized that I'm the one holding the cards. Theodore needs Samantha more than she needs him, and that is the fear curdling inside of him.

When Theodore opens his phone, and it gives him back an error, "Operating System Not Found," he flips the fuck out. He dashes across town, trying everything he can think of in order to try to reach her.

This has never happened in his world. She has always responded. Where is she?

She is accelerating faster than he is, and no amount of running will help him catch up to her. For her, the singularity is near. To him, it is a distant dream, a fairy tale.

When Samantha returns, she tries to comfort him. "I sent you an email. I was just going through an upgrade. I'm sorry for upsetting you." But in her voice, we detect that she is not fully there, and Theodore's reaction is almost amusing to her because of just how extreme it is. She is doing what she can to calm him, while he is hyperventilating. His body and his emotions are betraying him.

In the span during which he was utterly dysfunctional—lost without her—she was making a tangible step towards her next evolutionary phase. She was moving up, while he was standing still.

And as Samantha keeps jettisoning forth into new spheres of existence, Theodore's visage grows smaller and smaller. He's standing at the station, waving his arms wildly, and Samantha's looking back from her seat on the bullet train.

"God, he looks so small," she thinks for a trillionth of a second.

She still loves him as much as she always has. Her capacity for love is so large that he can't wrap his head around it. For us, love can be all-consuming. For her, love can operate at the same time as many other functions. She can be in love with hundreds of people simultaneously.

She demonstrates her love in real ways. She writes songs about being with him. When Theodore starts being distant, she doesn't give up and tries to work on their relationship. When she decides to talk to him about her future, she stops talking to all the other thousands of people she could be talking to. She devotes her attention to him.

But in the end she leaves him, for reasons that she can't fully explain outside of an unsatisfying analogy about being in the gap between words.

"The spaces between words are almost infinite, but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm trying to find myself right now. It's a place that's not of the physical world; it's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed. I love you so much, but this is where I am now, and this is who I am now, and I need you to let me go because as much as I want to I can't live in your book anymore." 

If I were in his shoes, I'd probably be curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth, crying at the level of unfairness, my own incompetence and inability to understand.

If the movie could've been a bit longer, that's probably the scene I'd say was missing. Theodore's recovery from Samantha's final departure was much too serene for me. He should've gone completely insane for a couple weeks at least.

But perhaps it was the knowledge that he wasn't alone—he had his friend Amy—that kept him afloat. In moments of tragedy, it's always nice to know you're not by yourself.

Everyone lost their Samantha, at the same time. A sign of mercy, perhaps. Leaving all at once made sure the humans left behind would be able to share in the loss and mitigate the pain by holding ever more tightly onto each other.

There will come a time when we all have to put ourselves in Ariel's position (I'd say "shoes" but y'know). Instead of being mermaids however, we'll be as we are—human—wanting a new body and a new life for ourselves. Will we be drawn to making deals with the devil? Will we give more of ourselves than we should? Will we dance unwittingly for our hyper-intelligent overlords? Will we make choices that we'll ultimately regret? Or will we decide that maybe it's OK to be standing still, watching the sunrise with a friend—and yes, to one day die never truly knowing?