The Radical, Reassuring Message of “Her”

Key to any discussion about science-fiction movies, including Spike Jonze’s new film Her, is the concept of “singularity,” the predicted moment when human beings will create true artificial intelligence. Writers like Vernon Vinge and Ray Kurzweil have predicted when this moment will occur (Vinge says 2030, while Kurzweil thinks it will be closer to 2045), but both agree that predicting the course of history after the singularity is impossible because the human mind cannot truly comprehend artificial intelligence. Many filmmakers, however, have begged to differ, or at least tried to take some very entertaining educated guesses, and what they say about it can explain a lot about our relationship with technology.

Most films about artificial intelligence – and there are many – take the concept of the singularity to its most terrifying conclusion: they will eventually decide to kill us. A short list of the sci-fi films that draw this conclusion would include some all-time greats: 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, The Matrix. These films sprung from our collective fear over advancements in technology. Put simply, as we give more and more of our processes over to machines, we are, in a way, making ourselves less necessary. Most films about artificial intelligence assume that machines that can think would decide that we don’t need to exist at all.

Lately, there have been more positive depictions of AI, like Tony Stark’s virtual butler Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) in the Iron Man movies, or the prosaically named but eminently helpful Robot in last year’s underrated Robot & Frank. Even those recent films that feature killer robots, like the Transformers series, usually depict a world in which there are both evil robots and good ones. This shifting cultural perspective indicates that we have, to a greater degree, accepted that technology will play an ever-increasing role in our lives.

Her takes this notion to its logical conclusion and imagines a relationship between man and machine that encompasses almost the entire experience of a romantic relationship between humans. At its core, the movie whose plot Her most closely resembles might be Annie Hall. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a depressive guy on the cusp of middle age. He meets a young, naïve girl, falls in love, and helps her grow. The only problem is that she eventually outgrows him, which puts their relationship into crisis. One significant difference between the two films is that, in Her, the girl is very young – like zero. In fact, she’s not a girl at all; she is a computer operating system that has been tailored to be the perfect partner for Theodore.

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Is it a sign of clichéd, unoriginal writing that the plot of Her so closely resembles a classic romantic comedy? Hardly. Rather, you will be delighted to find a science fiction film that does not use artificial intelligence to predict some sort of harrowing dystopian future. Portrayed in a terrific vocal performance by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha is not a cold, killing machine; nor is she purely benevolent, although, much like people seem to each other at the start of relationships, she seems that way at first.

Her romance with Theodore follows the beats of a normal human relationship. In the midst of a post-divorce malaise, Theodore “meets” Samantha when he buys and turns on his new operating system. At first, they are just friends, but after a really bad date with a live woman (Olivia Wilde), Theodore and Samantha become intimate. They can’t be physical with each other, but they do have what is essentially a pretty hot session of phone sex. From there on out, they are in a relationship that is emotionally satisfying for Theodore, until Samantha starts to outgrow him and meets a man more her speed (a haughty Brian Cox, playing a character equivalent to Paul Simon’s in Annie Hall). Samantha is built to keep growing, but Theodore is still held back by his past traumas and complex emotional life – you know, the things that make him human – and their relationship begins to suffer.

Samantha is similar to the machines in The Matrix or The Terminator in one crucial way: she causes our hero pain, lots of it. But the trauma she inflicts upon him is an ordinary kind, not dissimilar to the pain of his divorce, which he frequently talks about. In this way, Her reminds us that whatever technological advancements may come, humans have already done the best and the worst to each other. We love, kill, befriend, play, and hurt. When computers learn to think and our relationships with them begin to deepen, we’re unlikely to experience anything new at all.

In this time of deep anxiety over the relationship between humans and our planet – also reflected in films this year such as Gravity and All is Lost –  Her ultimately offers a reassuring message that the emergence of artificial intelligence won’t actually change much. Whether this is a comforting thought or a sad one might depend on your perspective, and this might be why critics seem to have had trouble placing Her’s vision of the future among other films. As Matt Patches wrote for IGN, “[t]he not-too-distant future of Spike Jonze’s her is both utopian and dystopian – a mesmerizing, provocative, and romantic world to soak up.” Or, to put it another way, it is a world very much like our own.

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