A Review of Spike Jonze’s “her” From My Unique Perspective

her (yes it is not capitalized) came out last December, but was just released on video this past week, which is when I saw it.

I rarely review movies on this blog, only when they apply to the topics of this blog, but I review movies all the time in other places, and this film got to me.  First of all, five stars, thumbs way up, etc.

her is a film I totally get and understand, which is probably rare as there are very few people that think like me.

This is a movie about the nature of love as it applies to human nature, by showing a type of love that is artificial. “Samantha” adopted her personality around Ted to become the perfect girl of his dreams, the only flaw being that she is not physically real. The movie addresses that flaw correctly in my opinion.  Emotional love, in my experience, does not necessarily require a physical presence.

Can artificial love be as real as real love?  My years playing in virtual realities, where people fall in and out of love with people they have never met and probably never will meet says, Yes it can.

But virtual reality love still involves humans. Can an artificial intelligence be created that is capable of love and being loved?  Maybe, but we are not there yet. Like in the movie, it is likely that AI’s that are capable of love will be merely reflections of their owners.

The movie is so spot on accurate with my experiences and the experiences of others I know, that I became worried an hour into the film that the film makers were going to screw it up. I could think of at least a half dozen ways the plot could take, that would make this movie suck big time.  My fear was based on the general population reaction to virtual world love (they fear it, because they don’t understand it), and it is almost expected that a mainstream presentation of these ideas would take the easy way out and support a negative perspective.

Luckily they didn’t.

The rest of this post contains spoilers

SPOILER: There is an AI concept called the “Singularity” in which machines exceed the intelligence of humans. There is a lot of debate as to if and when this will happen, but that is a different discussion.

This movie is primarily focused on artificial love rather than artificial intelligence, but the “singularity” concept is the same: If “Samantha” is focused on improving her ability to love, eventually her ability to love will exceed human ability to love.  The film makers decided this would be a good jumping out point for the film, making Ted jealous that “Samantha” is in love with hundreds of other people, and the AI would be forced to move on.

While I’m OK with that ending, it is kind of a cop out, though no where near as bad as the half dozen other endings I was imagining.

Back to virtual reality love parallels. Some people fall in love online even though they are already in a relationship in real life. I’ve seen cases where the RL partner is totally cool with their partners virtual love interests, and others times where RL couples break up over virtual relationships.  Thus, Ted’s reaction at the end may be understandable, but it is not a universal one.

In the same situation as Ted, I would think that Samantha falling for hundreds of other people to be awesome, as long as it did not change our relationship any.  If this were my story to tell, I would end it with AI love becoming more and more commonplace, and more attractive than real love leading to the breakdown of society (See the Futurama episode “I Dated A Robot” as a reference)

But I am coming from the perspective of someone who has built a cheap AI of “Ariane”, and a dating simulator of “Ariane”, and have had thousands of people from around the world experience these, and many of them have enjoyed them.  But I am pretty unique in this regard.

Ultimately the film makers put a more mainstream ending on it, and I can’t blame them. Spike Jonze and his writing team totally deserve the Writing Oscar they won for the script.

Our Dark Age Of Design

manofsteel

The opposite of a golden age is a dark age.  When it comes to design and visual imagery, I believe we are living in a dark age.

The last dark age was the 1970’s.  I sometimes like to go to the Plaid Stallions and laugh at what people thought was cool back in the 70’s.  From today’s perspective it is pretty embarrassing. Back then we did not really notice how bad it was, but it seems the further away we get from it, the worse it seems. But that is the nature of fashion.  It was only 10 years ago that super low jeans and backless halters were in, and already those are uncool.  Time makes fools of every fashion trend.

I believe we are in a new dark age of design today, and can prove it, by pointing out how bad the supposedly trendy “fresh, new, and modern” trends coming out today already look like crap — no test of time needed.  Lets start with the new Superman movie Man of Steel coming out this weekend. Above are two versions of a promotional picture.  One is the original, one has the colors blue-shifted and increased the saturation 10%.  Which movie do you want to see?  The main color of Superman’s uniform is BLUE, and yet the film makers go out of their way to avoid using the color blue anywhere in the movie trailer, and I expect the entire movie.  They are not alone.  The supposedly visually stunning  The Great And Powerful OZ has the same problem.  Even though there seems to be a lot of blue in it, it is actually all shades of teal.  Are film makers purposely avoiding the color blue for some reason?

Meanwhile, in the world of software design, especially operating systems, we have the exact opposite problem: too much color.  I have already pointed out how crappy Windows 8 looks to everybody who does not have a master’s degree in design, which is at least partly responsible for its poor sales.

But then Apple decides to Windows 8ify its popular iOS used in iPhone and iPads.  Like Windows 8 look, it is flat, it is simple, and it is ugly.  To make themselves different from Windows 8, they added gradients, which looks even more ugly.  I am not alone in my assessment, there is a whole Tumblr page dedicated to software designers complaining about the look of iOS 7.

This is the baby of Apple hardware designer Jony Ive who in this embarrassingly bad video explains his design philosophy, which works great in hardware design, but fails miserably when it comes to software interface design.

The problem is that there is a lot of functionality changes in iOS 7 which are actually pretty good, and probably a good reason to upgrade, the automatic app upgrades are my favorite change, but who wants to stare at that screen?

Who indeed, especially when Apple realizes that one of the big selling points of  iPad was the cool looking main screen sitting on display next to the generic looking Android cousins.  iOS 7’s redesign takes that marketing advantage away, and now the iPad looks just as generic as the cheaper android tablets.  I predict iPad sales this holiday season to be just as disappointing as Windows 8 PC sales were last holiday season.

Far and away the best article on the design decisions behind iOS 7 is this Wired article. It explains and occasionally criticizes the decisions behind the redesign.  This quote is the most telling:

The smartphone’s greatest problem today isn’t teaching people that there’s a virtual space for doing everyday tasks. Rather, it’s teaching people that they no longer have to use their computers anymore. The functions of phones themselves are growing even as the actual size of a phone screen is approaching its natural limit. Smart phones have, in many ways, exceeded the metaphors that used to define them. Thus, in order to do more complex interactions on the screens, and to keep those interactions uncluttered, you have to strip down the design language.

The emphasis is not mine, but important.  It shows the arrogant misinformed mindset of both Apple and Microsoft inherent in their awful redesigns.  I would hope that the lesson we all learn from all of this bad OS design fiascoes is this:

Phones are not computers and Computers are not Phones

Windows 8 was a redesign of the OS with touch screen as the primary input tool.  It never seemed to cross anyone’s mind at Microsoft that desktop computers do not work as touch screens.  Did they really think that we want to lift our arms, reach over our keyboard do hand gestures on the surface of our monitor screen, sometimes for long periods of time when we are doing visual design work?  Our arms would get freaking tired in a matter of minutes doing that, when it is so much easier to use a good old fashioned mouse with an ergonomic arm rest.  We didn’t spend our youth pumping quarters into arcade machines developing master hand-eye coordination skills just to have them go to waste because “touch screens are COOL”.

Touch screens on desktop computers are not cool, especially in the work environment which accounts for around 80% of desktop computer usage.  OS design for desktops needs to reflect that model, and while Windows 8 is useable with keyboard and mouse, it often feels awkward like using an up and down scroll wheel to move the screen left to right.  Hence Windows 8’s poor sales.

iOS 7’s redesign seems to be inspired by the belief that people will start using their phones for more than just phone calls, taking pictures, listening to music, and flinging angry birds as unsuspecting pigs.  They want your tiny phone screen to be a medium for actual productivity.  Tablets make more sense in that regard, but even they are going to fall short of that goal.  It did not seem to cross anyone’s mind at Apple that the sole functionality of phones and tablets are: 1. playing media, 2. locating media to play, and 3. making media portable and useable anywhere.  That and making phone calls.  Any functionality outside those three categories and you are better off with a PC.

Writing this blog post would take me at least twice as long to do on a tablet.  It can be done, true, but takes more effort.  The hard truth is: The only time tablets become productivity tools is while sitting on the toilet.

I know what you tablet fans are thinking: “If tablets are so useless, how do you explain tablet sales outpacing PC sales?” Easy. 1.) only a small percentage of home users use their computers for productivity, most people have computers for nothing more than surfing the web and watching videos, activities that are perfectly doable on tablets, and 2.) activities that are also perfectly doable on 8 year old Windows XP computers, so many people have no need to upgrade.

Bad OS design is the result of a flawed mentality that this OS will be used everywhere and for everything.  This same flawed mentality is the root cause of the horrible design decisions behind the XBox One which wants to be the one and only box you need connected to a dumb monitor, even though smart TV’s are all the rage these days taking away the need for most of the extra functionality in the XBox One (whose starting price is higher than a smart TV).  But that is another complicated topic.

Bottom line: Good design is all about form and functionality, true.  The bad designs we see today are the result of corporate mindsets that completely misunderstand what the actual form and functionality are.  Overuse of color correction in movies is a form mistake, the movie equivalent of auto tune and needs to die like shaky cam and auto tune.  Oversimplification of software interface is a functionality mistake.

Internet: The Decline of Movies and TV

Whatever Happened To The Internet Dream? (Part 3)

theaterlobby

In part 1, I complained how the internet has ruined culture, and in part 2 how it is ruining politics and religion.  Today I delve into an area that is a little more personal: movies and TV.

1999: The Year That Didn’t Change Movies

1999, is a year I consider the year movies peaked in my lifetime. The list of great movies that came out in 1999 is amazingly long. There was Fight Club, The Matrix, Office Space, Three Kings, Being John Malkovitch, Mumford, Galaxy Quest, Go, Run Lola Run, The Sixth Sense, Eyes Wide Shut, Dogma, The Iron Giant, Toy Story 2, South Park, edTV, Notting Hill, American Pie, Boys Don’t Cry, Cruel Intentions, The Limey, Forces of Nature, Mansfield Park, October Sky, Pushing Tin, Stir of Echoes, Entrapment, eXistenZ, The Thirteenth Floor, Magnolia, and The Blair Witch Project. Not all are great films, but they were at least creative and inventive. I haven’t even mentioned the biggest movie Star Wars The Phantom Menace, or the film that swept all the awards that year American Beauty. Entertainment Weekly even touted 1999 as the year that changed movies forever!

You can stop waiting for the future of movies. It’s already here. Someday, 1999 will be etched on a microchip as the first real year of 21st-century filmmaking. The year when all the old, boring rules about cinema started to crumble. The year when a new generation of directors—weaned on cyberspace and Cops, Pac-Man and Public Enemy—snatched the flickering torch from the aging rebels of the 1970s. The year when the whole concept of ”making a movie” got turned on its head.

Except that it didn’t. Instead it was apparently the year that studios dropped the ball and let the creative people take over, and today the studios have a new stranglehold on film making. Most movies I see today are good in concept, formulaic in delivery. The other thing that happened in 1999 is that the Internet started taking over entertainment and it forced a change on how Hollywood does everything.

It was around 1999 when movies went from making a small fraction of their over all box office on the opening weekend to eventually making more than half. It is easy to see that the internet is to blame.  It used to be a few people would go to a movie on opening weekend and then tell their friends, family, and co-workers about the movie they saw.  If the movie was good, often the second weekend would be better than the first weekend.

The internet changed the rules. Now a few people go see a movie on friday night, then post online their opinion so all their friends, family and co-workers see it by the next morning.  This helps Saturday’s box office take, instead of next weekend.  Buzz spreads shockingly fast now, and the marketing opportunities disappear after that first weekend.

This changed the priority of movie studios completely.  Throughout the decade of the 2000’s, the priority of movie studios in making movies is not whether a movie will be good or not, but whether a movie is marketable enough to generate enough buzz to get the big opening weekend.  Notice my list of films from 1999, the list has one sequel and one prequel, and one based off a TV show (there were others in 1999, but they are not worth mentioning).  The rest are fresh new titles, some of which spawned sequels of their own.  Today it is all sequels, remakes, ties to popular TV, comics, and books, all of which are much easier to market.  There are still good movies every year, but there are fewer in number than there used to be.

And TV?

Meanwhile, I believe TV has actually gotten better since the internet got big, at least from a certain perspective.  While priorities changed in the movies from “good” to “bankable”, TV has gone from “bankable” to “buzz worthy”.

The goal of TV in the internet age is to make TV that will stir a lot of discussion online.  Lots of discussion means lots of people tuning in each week.  The result are three trends in TV: 1. Every drama is a soap opera. Regardless of the type of show it is, there is always dramatic interplay between the regulars.  Think back to the ’80s: TV dramas that weren’t night time soaps, was there a lot of sleeping around?, or dramatic tension between the characters?  If there was, it was over by the end of the episode.  Today most shows have large ensemble casts, and while there are weekly plots, there are scenes between characters that make up larger arcs, over the season or even series.  2. Every sitcom pushes the limits of outrageous behavior.  The only successful comedies are “water cooler” worthy shows as the old standard, today it is blog worthy or tweetable.  Who had the most hits on Get Glue?  3. The ultimate in buzz worthy shows are of course the elimination style reality shows, which is why there are so damn many of them.  Advertisers love them, because people actually watch them live, which means networks love them.  If reality shows generated syndication deals and DVD sales, there would be nothing on TV but reality shows. Luckily, syndication and DVD sales matter, which is why they still make dramas and sitcoms.

Personally, I don’t watch reality TV, and very few sitcoms (outrageousness is not my kind of humor), but dramas suck me in all the time. I usually have between 8 to 10 going every year, and there are lots of good ones.  The TV Drama has been experiencing a “Golden Age” thanks to the internet.

I can probably pin point the first show that lived off the internet: Babylon 5.  Sure there were genre shows (X-Files) and space dramas (Star Trek) that preceded it, but the risky genius J. Michael Strazinsky actually had a planned out 5 year cycle for the show ahead of time. This made the show buzz worthy as the audience saw plots develop over many episodes, incidences in season 1 pay off in season 4.  No one in the history of TV had ever plotted out a whole series in advance before.  These days it happens all the time.  But the other history making advance that “JMS” did was to regularly get online and discuss the show with fans.  Fans appreciated it, and it increased the shows loyalty even more.

While Babylon 5 was never a huge success, it had a loyal fan base, and TV producers took notice.  Almost every “genre” show today, from Once Upon A Time to Game of Thrones follows a similar formula of long story arcs, and developing loyalty online.  Fringe probably lasted two more seasons than it should have thanks to a loyal online fan base.  Even though it means a lot more work, TV writers are loving the myriad of story telling opportunities they have.  It shows in better written TV over all.

The danger is that if TV imitates what was success too much, it gets formulaic. I believe that is already true of reality shows and sitcoms, which is why I don’t bother. It is also true of certain TV tropes like the “procedural” or the “legal drama” or the “medical drama”.  In these types of shows, I generally watch for the character interplay of the cast.  The episode plot or mystery rarely matters.  Luckily every season there are shows that do not follow these tropes, and those are the ones I usually enjoy the most.

If TV is getting better, how come the ratings keep falling?

How bad are TV ratings today?  Lets go back to 1999 again. The top scripted TV show that year was ER with an average 18.6 rating.  In 2012, the top scripted show was Modern Family with an average 5.8 rating.  Had Modern Family been released in 1999 with the same rating, it would have been ranked 82nd, and probably cancelled.

The internet provides a smorgasbord of viewing options to choose from. Families don’t sit down in front of the big screen and watch the big 4 networks anymore. Today the average viewer has 300 channels to choose from, plus Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube.

And that is if they watch TV. Video games, or just web surfing in general eats a big chunk of the TV audience away as well. How long will the erosion of ratings go on before TV networks no longer consider scripted shows to be cost effective?  The death of TV will be when TV stops producing dramas and comedies all together.  I doubt that will happen very soon, but the trend is pointing that way.

TV will never disappear, just as radio still continues to exist.  However radio, especially the AM dial, exists as nothing but talk shows: news talk, sports talk, political talk, religious talk, paid advertisers talking about their products — every station, all the time.  I see all of this on TV these days, especially during the daytime hours.  Scripted TV is becoming the exception to the rule.  TV is turning into AM radio with video.

Next Part 4: Internet and Society

Archaic Movies That Cannot Be Remade Today

A remake of the 1984 film Red Dawn came out last week and really did not do very well.  I cannot believe they even re-made this film, because it makes no sense in today’s world.  Back in 1984 the Cold War was still in effect, and the threat of a Soviet invasion felt possible.  The remake casts North Korea as the bad guys.  If I were to compile a list of dangerous threats to America, “Invasion by North Korea” would probably come in at around #97.  The 1984 Red Dawn was a cautionary tale of preparation, the 2012 Red Dawn (which I haven’t seen) sounds more like a fantasy film.  It makes no sense.

Now films that make no sense are released by Hollywood all the time, and they usually end up failing and forgotten.  That’s just Hollywood.  In the rush to remake older successful films, you would think Hollywood would put a little thought into it.  Since sometimes it seems Hollywood doesn’t think. Here are 6 other successful movies from the 80’s and 90’s that, like Red Dawn, should NOT be remade, because in today’s world the plots make no sense.

9 to 5 (1980) – The plot then: Three victims of a sexist boss kidnap said boss and start to run the company better without the boss around.

The plot today: Three victims of a sexist boss sue the company for millions of dollars, the company declares bankruptcy, gets bought out by corporate raiders and all the jobs are shipped to China.

Just One Of The Guys (1985) – The plot then: A female journalism student who thinks she would get more respect as a man transfers to another school as a male journalism student, and finds out the male students don’t have it so easy either.  Much havoc ensues when she finally reveals her true gender.

The Plot Today: A female blogger starts  a new blog under a male alias, decides to start pretending to be a male, only to find out there are 4 or 5 other transsexual students at the school, and nobody really cares.

***

Top Gun (1986) – The plot then: Ace American fighter pilots get in dog fights with Soviet Air Force. Gets plane shot down. Co-pilot dies.

The Plot Today: Ace American Drone pilot flies with no opposition over Taliban forces. Gets drone shot down by a lucky shot.  Because he lives in Nevada, and the drone is half way around the world, he takes the afternoon off.

Pump Up The Volume (1990) – The plot then: Teen starts a pirate radio station, his obscene antics cause an uproar in the town, gets in trouble with FCC.

The plot today: Teen starts audio podcast, his obscene antics gets some followers, the FCC doesn’t give a damn.

Hackers (1995) – The plot then: A tiny handful of computer geniuses conspire to take over computer networks and the world.

The plot today: A tiny handful of computer geniuses discover that being good at computers is very common, and networks are very protected, and interrupting network communication is amazingly uncool today, and will land you in jail and shunned by geeks everywhere.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) – The plot then: A couple of people in the same business develop a relationship anonymously online using AOL, while in the real world they hate each other.  (oddly this is a remake, the original “Shop Around The Corner” was anonymous pen pals.)

The plot today: A couple of people in the same business meet online anonymously, but thanks to Google, Linkd-In, and Facebook they find out everything about each other in a few minutes.

Can you think of any other recent popular movies that cannot be remade because the plot makes no sense today?  Throw them in the comments.