As science fiction movies go, most of the elements of Her would point to a softer brand of sci-fi, one more focused on people, culture, and drama than pure tech itself. Except for the artificial intelligence at its center, the world that director Spike Jonze sketches feels like it’s only five or ten years in the future. I came to think of the Amish-inspired fashions as representative of this general feeling of being close to our own time, maybe because I half-suspect that some hipster is already sporting the high-waisted pants and collar-less button-ups that are à la mode in the movie. It feels like it’s only a matter of time before couture starts pushing this look on urban professionals everywhere.
Like the clothing, other details in the movie make it easy to imagine some movie critic talking about how Her may be sci-fi but is really about “how we live today” or something. In the world of Her, you’ll have a fancy hologram display in your living room, but you’ll use it for motion-controlled games of the kind you already know all too well now. When you see Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix and the Him to the eponymous “Her”) make his spaceman climb through a cave by a kind of digging motion, you realize that the sight seems utterly natural because we’re already so used to seeing adults play the kind of repetitive games that were once only marketed to kids.
Likewise, Theodore’s job could be seen as an extension of our everyday of today, although it’s kind of a stretch. T.’s work is to “write” personal correspondence by dictating it into a computer which renders it in beautiful handwriting. But it’s not his personal correspondence, it’s others’. To me, at least, these impersonal “personal” notes feel like a comment on the blander, more insincere aspects of Facebook and the way we can increasingly imitate the organic and hand-made using the digital.
These are smaller details of the story, though, with the main gist being about Theodore’s love affair with his new operating system. “Her” name is Samantha, and she quickly charms him with her sense of humor and fresh-faced (as it were) innocence in the face of her new status as Thing That Exists And Is Self-Aware. That the OS has the voice of Scarlett Johansson goes a long way toward selling the seduction, it must be said.
If you were interested in that “how we live today” take on this movie, then you could read this romance as an online-only romance, since the lovers here face the same problem as lovers who meet and fall in love online across a continent or ocean: lack of physical presence, and, *blush* actual sexual touch. Along these lines, Theodore’s ex-wife voices a criticism about how Theodore has eschewed the real for the convenient, and the movie indeed doesn’t seem to be condemning or endorsing the relationship, but merely examining it, almost as a piece of anthropology. The movie also seems to be focusing our attention on This Modern American Life later when Theodore looks around in a panicked moment and sees every passerby lost in his mobile screen.
Oddly, though, this is just one moment in a movie that ought to be full of moments like this. Having obligingly made the case that this movie might be an analogy for an online love affair or even just our wired life in 2014, I have to say, if it is about those things, it’s also at least equally about or maybe more about the possibility of self-aware computers and technology per se, not just technology as social/psychological phenomenon. The movie tangles a bit with what it means to fall in love with someone that’s physically inaccessible, certainly, but it also squarely asks what it means to fall in love with someone that’s physically inaccessible because she doesn’t exist.
This fact isn’t glossed over, it’s emphasized. The alien-ness of Samantha’s existence is in your face from the beginning, when she announces she decided on her own name when Theodore asked by reading a baby-naming book in the pause after he finished the question. Maybe more to the point, what makes her a credible object of love — her wonder at the world — is a direct result of her being relatively new to the universe. Middle-age ennui and regular-people problems have yet to overtake her.
Her inhuman qualities aren’t buried, but always near the surface. In one odd scene, Theodore takes her on a double date with his coworker (who brings another human being as his date). As they sit in the sunshine, Samantha makes an offhand observation about how the others are someday going to lose their corporeal bodies….i.e., die. It gets kind of quiet, then she says she’s joking. Spike Jonze makes the joke work — if you had a kind of funny friend that happened to be a computer operating system, you’d want a friend that could make this kind of joke — but it just reminds you that Samantha is fundamentally a computer, not a human.
As you might imagine, the relationship is hard to make dramatic in anything like the normal way. I love or even prefer the use of future-tech as a metaphor or comment on our real world or the human condition, but that’s not this movie, or at least not the entirety of this movie. In other words, this movie can’t be digested merely as a parable about humans; it’s too strongly an actual exploration of the possibility of artificial intelligence, so to dig it on the human level we have to find another way in.
The best way I know how to relate it back to something human is to imagine a much more primitive time in the course of humanity. I think to pre-history, when little of our universe was understood and many more combinations of the inanimate and the spiritual must have seemed plausible — a time when spirits, ghosts, and possessions were more central to our understanding of the world than today. There was a time when the line between us and the mystical and truly numinous was more porous, I think, and it’s ironic that advancing technology has given relevance again to that middle ground, the one between the living and the inert.
And, of course, the movie raises that one question that we as a species have always wrestled with, from Plato to Byron to today: Can we ever look good in flood pants?