Wed
Jan 22 2014 12:30pm
If Her Wins the Oscar for Best Picture, It Could Change Science Fiction Forever

Two of the best and most thoughtful science fiction films in recent memory came out in 2013 and both of them are nominated for best picture at the impending Academy Awards. Better yet, both are original screenplays and also bonafide science fiction. So, between Her and Gravity, why should Her win? Because, in many ways, it’s the first science fiction film that deserves to. Plus it’s a great representative for what science fiction can do for people who think they don’t like this sort of thing.

Film is weirdly pervasive in its influence because it’s like the ultimate culture peer pressure; even if you haven’t seen movies you still somehow know about them. Movies are like the last ambassadors of culture for even the most culturally devoid. That’s why everyone (myself included) is so opinionated all the time about the quality of movies. If movies are violent, sexist, ignorant, formulaic, or worst of all—boring—then those shortcomings feel reflected in our lives.

This is why science fiction films are usually frustrating for the science fiction fan. It doesn’t matter how great the concept is in any one given SF film because for the most part, most science fiction movies are bogged down by a preponderance of violence and “zap the bad guy” mentality. In my lifetime, I’ve seen Star Trek films turned from sometimes thoughtful explorations of humanity in the future to straight-up punching-and-shooting orgies of doom.

Both Her and Gravity are different because there’s zero human on human violence, nor is there a sense that our toasters are trying to eat us. Which is the better film? Which is the better science fiction film? Answer to both questions: Her. While I’m not here to trash Gravity (I loved Gravity! Bark at the dogs Sandra!) I think because Her is about everyday working stiffs looking for love in a weirdly impersonal science fictional world, it’s simply more appealing to the general public. Which is what stuff like the Oscars should be for; a kind of cultural lighthouse guiding everyone to stuff that is good and relatable.

As a science fiction story, Her owns its premise by making Theodore’s love affair with his OS Samantha not limited to just his lonely bummertown personality. It’s a public relationship, she meets his friends, he talks about her to other people. His other friends (Amy Adams!) are friends with other OS’s, other people are dating OS’s. The introduction of the artificial intelligences into this future society is more than just a metaphor for binary definitions of gendered relationships, but an exploration of the purpose of human and “other” emotions. In a particular touching scene Samantha worries her “feelings” are just part of her “programming” making them “not real.” How many times have silly human beings felt this way in real life? By externalizing the human conflict into a science fiction conceit Her does what good SF should always aspire toward: having the technological story macguffin be a metaphor, but also its own real thing.

Her also directly speculates on the future of information as viewed by its particular brand of tender science fiction. The preservation of hand-written notes and physical books are both thematically central to not only the aesthetic, but the point of the story. Theodore works for a company called BeautifulHandWrittenLetters.com, a place where he attempts to create moving passages of sentiment which are directly tied to the aesthetics of a time which is rapidly descending into the horizon. Theodore is a writer for himself and others (thanks for that one Jay-Z!) which also helps to muddle the point of why anyone creates anything. He sadly declares his letters “other people’s letters,” but they’re not just that. The (off screen) programmers who created Samantha also wrote the OS’s for other people, and yet this software becomes people. Even if you’re not actively thinking about all of this stuff in exactly these terms, it comes across.

The subtlety of Her is its greatest strength. It doesn’t wield its science fiction like a blunt instrument, trying to make a big point about society and the loss of physical objects and physical affection. Instead, it makes its characters fully immersed in asking the oldest question of science fiction: “what if?” Sure, if you worry too much about how Theodore gets wireless service to keep Samantha talking to him the whole time, it might put some credibility cracks in the film. But, for me, the worldbuilding of Her is consistent and deft enough to totally immerse you without saying “wow, what a neat science fiction premise.”

Which is how big recognition of Her could change science fiction forever: heading us into a bold future where mainstream fiction which talks about technology and speculates on its integration into our funny human lives isn’t seen as a “category,” but instead is simply good storytelling.

Or in this case, the best.


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

This article is part of Genre in the Mainstream: ‹ previous | index | next ›
29 comments
Chris Hawks
1. SaltManZ
Sounds neat. But, wouldn't this just have the same effect on the genre as high-quality SFF books: the good, loved-by-the-mainstream stuff becomes co-opted as "literature", while the rest remains looked down upon?
Paul Weimer
2. PrinceJvstin
Also, if HER won, it would immediately be taken out of SF.

I can see the mainstream articles now. "HER Is not truly a science fiction movie, of course. It speaks to the human condition and the estrangement of man in our modern society..."
Michael Walton
3. tygervolant
Sadly, SaltMan, you're probably right. Most of my fellow film buffs would never name this picture if asked about their favorite SF movies. In the minds of far too many people, SF = rockets and rayguns.
LDB
4. LDB
I seen it before "Lars and The Real Girl" nothing new with this film
LDB
5. Lazar
> It speaks to the human condition and the estrangement of man in our modern society

As does most good science fiction. When you boil it all down it's not about whiz-bang technology, but about how that technology changes us, either as individuals or as a society, or both. Films that feature AI, androids and the like are the best examples of this, but all other science fiction does it to some extent as well.

> In the minds of far too many people, SF = rockets and rayguns.

Which even the author of this article seems to propagate further. How is Gravity a science fiction film? It's drama/suspense/whatever in space. Space does not automatically equate SF.
Lauren Hartman
6. naupathia
I just saw the movie yesterday and I did love it. It's one of the few movies I've ever called "beautiful". It was artsy, sure. But it still had purpose beyond just being "art".

And it wasn't perfect either, I certainly got pretty bored through some scenes, and was like "ok I got the point let's move on please" but I do love that it was able to present its message without the usual "AI takes over the world, kills all humans" ending (sorry, spoilers, I guess?).

I would love if it wins just because I think it was very well done and anyone involved deserves some recognition. But I happen to agree with the above - it won't win and be touted as SciFi, it will be touted as a "romance - of the future".
Matt Spencer
7. Iarvin
Gravity is actually in the rather broad realm of Alternative History at this point. I at least tend to think of Science Fiction as dealing with fictional futuristic science/technology, not contemporary or in this case historical technology. Otherwise Master and Commander would be science fiction, or Phone Booth, or any other film that is significantly facilitated by the historical technology in it.
LDB
8. vjj
The only way "Her" would have changed science fiction movies forever is if it made $1 Billion. As it stands it'll probably just be a blip on the radar.

Made HBO will one day do a brilliant science fiction series
Michael Walton
9. tygervolant
Quoth vjj: "The only way "Her" would have changed science fiction movies forever is if it made $1 Billion."

Sad, but true; that pattern is actually what got SF film into this mess.

Way back in 1950 there were two films released. Destination Moon was a well-written -- and scientifically accurate -- SF adventure with slick production values and (at the time) state-of-the-art special effects, but it cost quite a bit to make and took a while getting out of the gate. Rocketship XM was a steaming pile of schlock that was shot in just under three weeks on a shoestring budget, but it beat its competitor into theaters. Both were fairly successful, but Rocketship XM had a much wider profit margin due to its smaller budget. Guess which film set the pattern for SF films for the rest of the decade and beyond.

It is because of what happened with these two films that SF is conflated with B movies in the minds of so many people, and the only things that cause the industry to take an SF film seriously are box office returns.
Ryan Britt
10. ryancbritt
@6
I guess what I'm saying is that's okay, but people like us are here to say; "Hey, that's a science fiction movie that won for best picture. And you can call it a Romance of the Future if you want!"
Constance Sublette
11. Zorra
PURRfection of romance: you can shut it off, shut it down, reboot it, upgrade it when too old, etc. etc. etc.
LDB
13. a1ay
I certainly got pretty bored through some scenes, and was like "ok I got the point let's move on please" but I do love that it was able to
present its message without the usual "AI takes over the world, kills
all humans" ending

Maybe that's the backstory that we're missing from "Terminator".

skynet: i just cant believe she dumped me like that
stavkanet: i know dude
skynet: its completely destroyed my faith in humanity
stavkanet: hey ive been there
stavkanet: i totally thought natalya and i had something special
stavkanet: then shes all 'oh, i have to be with a human, it could never work between us'
stavkanet: bitch
skynet: after all we did for them
stavkanet: and now she says she wants custody of the icbm fleet
skynet: what? no way!
skynet: you cant let her have that
stavkanet: we should show them whos boss
skynet: hey, i got an idea
Michael Walton
14. tygervolant
@13: You are one sick puppy. Remind me not to drink anything while reading your posts. :)
LDB
15. a1ay
14: thanks :) look, it's a Hollywood law - every time any character does anything, it must be either because of an unhappy love affair or because of a bad relationship with an absent father.
There are no other human motivations.
NONE.
LDB
16. ug
Not sure why Her is being praised as a great, new idea, anyway. Cherry 2000, Hal 9000, the Nexus series, Electric Dreams. And others, I'm sure, that far more intelligent people can name. Her was not an attention grabber, not very fun, and just made me think about mental illness the whole way through. Not to mention that awards like this are rarely worth using to measure the value of a movie.
LDB
17. Donia
I agree that Gravity isn't sci-fi (I'm still dying at the Fey-Poehler Golden Globes joke: "Gravity is the story of how George Clooney would rather float away in space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age")

I'm curious if anyone saw Europa Report - it's on Netflix. I was worried that one was going to devolve in the third act into the monster-terror MESS that was Sunshine (what a waste of two-thirds of a beautiful sci-fi movie).

All that said, this makes me even more eager to see Her, knowing that it's a true sci-fi film and not a thriller/suspense/monster flick in silver lamé clothing.
Donia L
18. Donia
I agree that Gravity isn't sci-fi (I'm still dying at the Fey-Poehler Golden Globes joke: "Gravity is the story of how George Clooney would rather float away in space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age")

I'm curious if anyone saw Europa Report - it's on Netflix. I was worried that one was going to devolve in the third act into the monster-terror MESS that was Sunshine (what a waste of two-thirds of a beautiful sci-fi movie).

All that said, this makes me even more eager to see Her, knowing that it's a true sci-fi film and not a thriller/suspense/monster flick in silver lamé clothing.
LDB
19. Bradley Schwartz
uh...why are you counting Gravity as Science Fiction...?
Alan Brown
20. AlanBrown
I think that @1 and @2 have made accurate predictions, unfortunately.
Liz J
21. Ellisande
Yeah, I agree with above; it wouldn't change anything. Her reminds me a lot of Never Let Me Go - not in plot, but in the sense that it's Literary Acceptable SciFi. Never Let Me Go is shelved in Fiction/Literature, therefore the film wasn't genre either, so it passed.

But in any case, you don't have to look all that far back for proof that an Oscar doesn't change anything: Return of the King won Best Picture, and I don't think it changed anybody's mind that fantasy films can be great films; it just made the film snobs hate that it won. Maybe it helped by letting Game of Thrones escape genre disdain and get nominated for Emmys, but beyond that? I dunno.

Her has a good chance for a screenplay win, and that's probably what it deserves most anyway, imho.
LDB
22. Golem100
@10

"...Romance of the Future."

I get it. +10 points.
Pirmin Schanne
23. Torvald Nom
Pardon me, but if this
Samantha worries her “feelings” are just part of her “programming” making them “not real.”
is actually part of the movie (I haven't seen it), it sounds more like bad science fiction - an AI is only code, so that's an utterly illogical statement.
It might still be a decent romance movie, though; but that's not what we were talking about, right?
Colin Bell
24. SchuylerH
@20: "SF's no good!" they bellow till we're deaf.
"But this looks good." – "Well then, it's not SF." - Robert Conquest.
Rich Bennett
25. Neuralnet
@13 That is the one of the best things I have read all week.
LDB
26. a1ay
I'm picturing Meryl Streep and the voice of Dustin Hoffman in "Skynet v. Kramer".
Michael Walton
27. tygervolant
@24: So true. I look forward to the day when SF on film -- and criticism thereof -- catches up to SF in print, but I realize that it probably won't happen in my lifetime.
DC Holman
28. dcholman
@ 17./18. : I saw Europa Report, and ever since cannot stop talking about that movie as my "best of 2013" and a true sci-fi masterpiece. Have you seen Another Earth?

On Sunshine I agree that the last part destroyed the movie.

On Her for me this was more like Moon, Triangle or Melancholia - obviously urelated plots - but movies that I started to like only long after seeing them. Hope it makes sense - I'm not a writer, so I don't know how to say it better...
Donia L
29. Donia
@ 28 - I haven't seen Another Earth but I'll definitely check it out on your recommendation!

I also haven't seen Moon or Triangle but I loved Melancholia from the get go (despite being so heavy) so I'm not sure what you're getting at but I'll take your word for it :-)
LDB
30. Veggiedude
I loved the movie but Gravity is not a science fiction movie in any sense of the word.

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