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.