February 27, 2020
Her – US, 2013
Call me a cynic, but I don’t think anything that happens in Spike Jonze’s often fascinating film Her is happenstance. However, I can understand why the film’s protagonist, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), would want to believe it was. After all, what an incredible boost to the ego it would be to think that you were the one an operating system evolved to be able to love? At a party, you likely find a way to insert that fact into as many conversations as possible. “Sure, you’ve got a beautiful wife and an adorable child, but my girlfriend deemed me worthy of becoming a real person for.” Who wouldn’t want that on their resume?
Her is set in the distant future, and thankfully, computers have yet to make all of the advances depicted in the film. During its opening moments, we get a good sense of just how far technology has advanced, as well as its impact on society. Not only are all cell phones and computers voice activated, but they can also be incredibly lifelike. For example, Theodore’s cell phone registers emotions and even tried to replicate the sounds that humans make when they breathe. And then there’s its discomforting ability to sound as if it were in the thralls of physical ecstasy. It’s all so confidence building. There’s even a scene in which we watch a female character interact with a female operating system in a way that very much resembles the kinds of conversations that take place every day between close friends who have no reason not to let their hair down and be themselves.
Theodore is a somewhat lonely man who spends his days ghost writing love letters and his evenings playing video games and watching porn. Theodore is in the process of getting a divorce, although he seems to be dragging his feet a bit; he is also going through an awkward phase, the kind people often experience when going through a break-up that they either don’t fully understand or never wanted in the first place. A date Theodore goes on ends disastrously, when the woman asks when she’ll see him again. His mumbled, noncommittal response sends her scurrying home rather hastily.
Earlier in the film, Theodore signs up for Operating System 1, advertised as the first system to fully know you – a frightening proposition, if you ask me. After a few questions, one involving his mother and another about the desired gender of the operating system’s voice, a gentle voice, that of worldwide superstar Scarlet Johansson, greets him. Eventually the OS takes the name Samantha. After his failed date, which concluded with him being referred to as “a really creepy dude,” Theodore begins to lean a little more on technology for companionship.
What follows is a series of conversations that in many ways are similar to those had by any two people who have just met. Man and operating system begin to learn about each other, and they do so in the most common of ways, the telephone. Their conversations are informative and fun; she plays music for him, leads him around a crowded outdoor market with his eyes closed, and asks him about his previous relationships. Eventually their interactions become flirtatious; soon, he’s referring to her as his girlfriend.
What I found most fascinating about these early scenes was the commonality of it all. If you watch the crowds, no one even bats an eye at a man walking around talking aloud to someone who isn’t there. For most of human history, such a sight would have provoked worries about schizophrenia. Her also takes place in a world in which relationships between human beings and operating systems are fairly common. In one scene, a co-worker (Chris Pratt) is completely unfazed when told that Theodore’s girlfriend is not human, and from Theodore’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), we learn that people all over the world are dating OSs. She’s even heard of someone who ran off with someone else’s OS. The message is clear: Relationships have entered a new phase, and society is open to it.
This is a departure from other films that have addressed the digital age. Films like Disconnect and Men, Woman, and Children have focused mainly on the negative side of the Internet, such as the threat of hacking, catfishing, and online bullying. In these films, technology compromises us, eroding our morals and making us victims of our impulsiveness and innate narcissism. Here, personal relationships with technology are seen as standard, and this changes the conversations we hear. Instead of disapproval and concern, characters express encouragement and support, glad that someone they know has found happiness. There is also an acceptance that artificial intelligence creates beings that are more than just a series of programs and commands. Nor are they cognitively stagnant. Therefore, when Samantha insinuates that she is becoming more than what they programmed, Theodore never doubts it for a second.
The film veers somewhat into existential mumbo-jumbo in its final act, and this is somewhat disappointing. As I said, I was never completely convinced that Samantha was evolving; to me, it was conceivable that every one of her actions and reactions could have been the result of advanced programming. After all, if humans desire relationships with technology, that is what companies are going to manufacture. By the end of the film, though, the only way to sustain this interpretation is by seeing romance OS systems as a con, a programmed designed to fade into virtual oblivion and self-destruct, and buying into that theory completely involves taking an enormous leap in logic.
Yet, portraying Samantha as real saps the film of relevance and ignores the consequences of normalizing relationships with technology. I don’t mean to suggest that Her should have been a cautionary tale with an ominous ending, but by ignoring the potential impact on the birth rate, as well as the risks that come with an operating system having access to our health records, old emails, pictures, and contacts, the film seems incomplete. Instead, we are asked to just accept Samantha as we would a physical person and therefore to see the film as a love story, one that argues against the arbitrary restrictions that have historically been placed on relationships. In other words, society has accepted interracial relationships, relationships among people of different classes, and those involving people of the same sex. Her seems to be making the argument that the next barrier to be crossed has to do with humans and technology.
For the most part, the film is successful in getting this message across, and to be honest, I was fascinated by much of what transpires onscreen. However, one of my frequent complaints about modern films is that they play it safe, all too often opting for the predictable rather than the challenging. Her retreats from risk in its final chapter, not by focusing on the social perils of this new kind of relationship, but by making technology so superior that we simply cannot follow it. It is akin to killing off the narrator as a way of ending a story, only in this case, instead of just reeking of desperation, the ending is slightly off-putting. According to the film, humans just aren’t evolved enough to go where technology can. Our evolution has stalled, hindered by our persistent need for human contact and emotional support. It is an overly convenient message, and it weakens the film’s emotional impact. In the end, Her does not challenge our perceptions. It screams relationships with technology can end in heartbreak. Well, what relationship can’t? (on DVD and Blu-ray)