Her (and the Top 10 most terrifying films about technology)
Available next week on Blu-Ray and DVD, Her is the latest film from director Spike Jonze and stars Joaquin Phoenix as a writer named Theodore who is on the verge of divorce from his wife and who tries to console himself by purchasing a new operating system for all his tech gadgets.
If that sounds like it might be a fairly dull concept for a film, think again; this is Spike Jonze we’re talking about here, the man behind films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, so as you might expect things do get a little weird.
First of all, this isn’t just any old operating system. OS-1 is billed as the first operating system to feature artificial intelligence - as the advertisement tells us, ‘it’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness’ - and in this case it’s one with a female persona named Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The lovelorn Theodore soon begins to find himself falling in love with Samantha, which is reciprocated by the seductive-sounding operating system.
On the one hand, the film is lovingly put together and the odd concept is no problem for Jonze, who handles the idea with a delicacy and poignancy that actually makes this a very heart-warming film, helped along by a great performance from Phoenix who lends a level of intimacy to the role that really makes the film what it is.
On the other hand though, the film does raise so many questions about our relationship with new technology and the concept itself is a fairly terrifying one that shares a few common threads with one of the episodes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, in which a woman buys an app and, later, a computer-generated facsimile of her deceased husband, in order to help get over her loss.
Her is by no means the first film to address our fears about technology - as far back as 1927 Fritz Lang was addressing some of these in Metropolis - so we decided we’d put together a list of the Top 10 most terrifying instances of what happens when technology goes bad on the silver screen…
Isaac Asimov’s Robots series of books quite literally set the rules for robotic behaviour on the big screen and Alex Proyas’ 2004 film starring Will Smith makes use of modern CGI to bring the film’s terrifying concept to life. When a new series of robots is produced, the manufacturers secretly embed a new type of firmware that allows them to override the robots system of moral conduct, allowing them for the first time to harm humans. The results make for an Orwellian nightmare in which thousands of robots turn from servant to master, imprisoning their owners in their own homes, and only the technophobic Del Spooner (Smith) can see what’s coming.
This classic from Disney was released in 1982 when arcade gaming was right in the middle of its golden age. Jeff Bridges stars as Flynn, the owner of a video game arcade and a talented programmer / hacker who gets sucked into the machine universe when an experiment to digitise objects goes wrong, leaving him to battle his way out of a system that has been corrupted by the Master Control Programme, a mutation of one of his creations that rules the cyberworld in a decidedly totalitarian fashion. Lauded at the time for its special effects, even if they do look a bit dated now, this film has grown into a cult classic, but it’s another example of machines developing a consciousness that quickly turns malevolent.
Paul Anderson’s 1997 film stars Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill as two members of a rescue crew sent to recover a pioneering research ship that suddenly returns after being sucked into a black hole, but something sinister now inhabits the ship, which seems to have developed a form of consciousness and annihilated her own crew. We’d advise avoiding the pause button on your Blu-Ray player if you’re squeamish, as some of the images flashed across the screen are pretty gruesome, but the film has a tension that will keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick’s classic space adventure introduced us to HAL, the ruthless ship’s computer that puts scientific discovery before human life. The often disorientating plot involves a race to series of monoliths placed throughout the universe by an mysterious, unknown entity that act as a catalyst for evolution. Things unravel as HAL takes control of Dr. Dave Bowman’s spaceship in order to reach the next stage of evolution for itself. HAL’s cold, unfeeling malevolence is a concept that has been copied many times.
Philip K. Dick’s novels have featured some of the most terrifying ‘what if’ scenarios ever seen in science fiction, but the one that really sends a shiver down our spines is depicted in Minority Report. The concept is a reasonably familiar one: government arrogantly believes new system is flawless but fails to anticipate the consequences if the system is actually flawed. In this case, the idea is that of three ‘pre-cogs’, gifted humans with an ability to predict the future through their dreams who are kept in sensory deprivation tanks and wired to a sophisticated computer that allows the ‘pre-crime’ department of the police force to apprehend people for crimes they have yet to commit. What the government neglects to tell people is that, sometimes, the pre-cogs disagree on future events, hiding any minority predictions and going with the ‘two-out-of-three-ain’t-bad’ rule of thumb. As Tom Cruise’s character discovers to his peril, this has the potential to wrongly convict the innocent for something they never even intended to do, and if that doesn’t frighten you, we’re not sure what will…
Probably the film on this list that bears the most similarity to Spike Jonze’s new film, Transcendence stars Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, a scientist who is striving to create the first artificial intelligence programme, but things get dangerously out of hand when he uploads his own consciousness into the system following an attempt on his life by a terrorist ground named RIFT (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), who are opposed to the new system fearing it could be the downfall, not the saviour, of humanity. Also starring Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman and Rebecca Hall, it’s a nightmarish depiction of what can happen when artificial intelligence surpasses our own.
Directed by Stephen King and starring Emilio Estevez, this film from 1986 is less scary than it is ludicrous in its depiction of what can happen when technology goes bad, but it does feature one of the funniest death scenes ever to grace a cinema screen. Based on one of King’s short stories (Trucks, in case you were wondering) the film hasn’t aged well, but the concept of every piece of electronic equipment in the world, from cash machines to electric chainsaws, suddenly developing a murderous consciousness is a pretty frightening one.
Being a Japanese horror film, Kairo has, of course, already had a hollywood remake in the form of Pulse, but in our opinion Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s original just edges it in the terror stakes. Set in a Japanese university, a group of students try to solve a series of strange happenings following the death of one of their friends, leading them to a webcam that offers communication with the dead. It’s quite a slow-moving film, but it’s paced for maximum tension and there are moments that will have you jumping out of your seat. Not for the faint-hearted…
This John Hughes film from 1983 stars a young Matthew Broderick as a computer-savvy teenager who accidentally hacks into a super-computer that is able to control the world’s nuclear weapons. When he challenges the computer to a game that he believes to be a simulation, he inadvertently begins the countdown to World War III. He must then embark on a mission to find the man who created the system in the hope that the countdown can be stopped before the computer causes Armageddon. If you’re a parent, now might be a good time to check on whether that’s really ‘homework’ your kids are doing up there…
Starring Bruce Willis and Rosamund Pike, Jonathan Mostow’s 2009 film is set in a future where humans stay in the comfort of their own homes and instead send out ‘surrogates’ - robotic versions of their younger, fitter selves - to carry out their day-to-day lives, creating a utopian society where fear, crime and murder are all but eradicated, but when the first murder for many years uncovers a secret government plot, Greer (Willis) abandons his surrogate to unravel the mystery. The really terrifying thing about this whole scenario is what happens to the actual humans as they stay festering inside their homes, never venturing into sunlights and becoming pale shadows of their former selves.
Her is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday (June 23rd) in hmv stores across the UK.