‘Her,’ ‘Black Mirror’ show opposing views of the near-future

Updated Jan 08, 2014

When every week feels as if it brings a new technological wrinkle into our lives, who has time to consider what complications all these digital devices will deliver to us down the road?

If you’re in the mood for a little speculative whiplash, you could view two pieces of entertainment with strongly opposing views of the near future.

On Friday, a sublime new film from Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”) opens in Austin. “Her” is accumulating industry awards and was named the best film of 2013 by two of our three film critics. You may have heard that it’s about a depressed hipster played by Joaquin Phoenix who falls in love with a disembodied computer operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson. It’s high-concept, but it’s also as sweet, beautiful and awkward as it is full of heart.

A cynical person could call it the first full-length feature Apple commercial, but that cynical person might also break down and cry from the laid-bare humanism that a matured Spike Jonze shows here.

What does it have to do with the technology we use today? The film’s love interest is like a highly evolved version of Apple’s Siri, and the affair that blossoms between human and device plays out via familiar-looking hardware. Phoenix’s character, Theodore, wears a white earpiece as he walks about a clean, eco-forward Los Angeles, showing the world to Samantha (the OS) through a mobile device that looks like a stylish cigarette case. The most implausible thing about the movie is that no one in Los Angeles is ever shown driving a car.

Samantha is smart enough to want to grow and change, to soak in the world’s knowledge and to create her own. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Samantha would turn into some version of the Terminator, plotting the downfall of humans like Theodore and a rise of the machines. Instead, Theodore comes to accept the limitations and joys of being human.

“Her” is a movie that’s not afraid to ask, “How does one have sex with an operating system?” “How would a double date work?” and “Could we handle it if we weren’t the last link in the evolutionary chain?”

“Her” is a delicate balancing act, a movie that feels so fragile you could poke it with a pinkie and bruise it all over. But it is hopeful about the ways that technology can assist us by opening us up to what life has to offer. This is even as it tweaks our current habits of walking and talking with our cellphones and the way video games we play are increasingly tapping into our hopes and insecurities.

If “Her” is the future, it’s a bright and wistful one, something to look forward to.

The British television series “Black Mirror,” on the other hand, is not that at all.

In fact, it takes a strong stomach to view all six episodes of the anthology series, which has been compared to a Twitter-era update of “The Twilight Zone.”

The first three episodes of “Black Mirror” are available on DVD, and all six aired recently on DirecTV, where some of the episodes are still available on demand. It’s smart, scary and, in some of the stories, the technological consequences of a world full of ever-present screens (the black mirrors of the title) feel frighteningly inevitable.

In one episode (“The National Anthem”), a tech-savvy terrorist makes a disgusting demand on the prime minister involving a pig and a live national broadcast — surprisingly, the terrorist kind of has a point. In another (“The Entire History of You”), a Google Glass-like device can record what a person sees and call up the memories as shareable video footage. It changes the dynamics of a marriage in predictably disruptive ways.

It would be a crime to ruin the twists in the terrifying “White Bear” or the “X-Factor”-meets-“Brazil” future shock story “Fifteen Million Merits,” but in both, mobs use technology to dehumanize reality TV stars in ways that don’t seem too far removed from where we are today.

The emotionally resonant “Be Right Back” is about a future where something precious we’ve lost can be rebuilt through technology. Unfortunately, a copy rarely compares to an original, especially when it’s built on the artificial bits we share online.

There’s really only one dud in the bunch, the one-dimensional political doodle “The Waldo Moment,” but the rest of “Black Mirror” is a remarkable collection of ruminations on where all these smartphone screens, social media feeds and wearable technologies may lead.

It will creep you out. It will make you want to unplug for a while. And though the stories are set in different time periods — some feel like they could happen today while others are rooted at least 10 or 20 years from now — all will make you think about your relationship with technology in worst-case-scenario terms.

A little bleak, perhaps, but it’s a nice counterweight to the feel-good futurism of “Her.”