This one broke my heart. It came right at a time when I needed it, too. There’s a moment when Joaquin Phoenix’s character is debating the merit of his strange new relationship with a friend (Amy Adams) and she says, “We’re only here briefly, and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy.” I’ve been repeating that in my head over and over.
Every now and then, a film comes along that really captures our moment, and I think that film is Her by Spike Jonze. In 2014, the world teeters on the edge of a technological future far beyond our wildest dreams, and we’re not all flying around in spaceships and planet-hopping. Instead, we’re relentlessly plugged in, disconnected, and analyzed in a round-the-clock consumerist, solipsistic marketplace. Her, set in a near-future, rose-tinted Santa Monica, avoids being another robot disaster scenario and assuages our anxieties a bit with a surprisingly bearable vision of the world ahead. In Spike Jones’ future, people still suck at intimacy. They enjoy digital chat rooms and phone sex and have bad IRL dates. At least some things never change.
Everyone walks around talking to earpieces, clicking through emails, and living seamlessly with their devices. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) gets paid to write other people’s letters — from parent to son, husband to wife, lover to lover. These letters demand intense empathy from a man who goes home and plays video games alone every night. Twombly is the middleman in the widening, tech-filled gap between humans of the future, but his job is also kind of reassuring. It’s sweet that people still write letters to each other in the future, even if they’re fake.
The world of Her is not a dystopia. People still hang out after work. Coworkers go out for drinks. People go on picnics (actual picnics!). One day after work, Theodore purchases the world’s first artificially intelligent computer operating system. The program clicks on and calls itself “Samantha.” Samantha is a disembodied robot with the sentience to name itself (herself?) and contemplate the limitations of her existence while organizing his files and deleting his spam emails.
Samantha becomes a sort of social experiment on both Theodore and the audience, as we connect to her (or don’t) without a body or face to look at. We assign her sentience with a human-sounding voice (one that sounds strikingly similar to Scarlett Johansson, an actress we know and love). As Theodore falls in love with her, so do we.
For the sake of debate, modern life sciences show that our brains are really just complex, organic computers. Similar to electronic programming and circuitry, most of what we do is genetic coding (call it “data”) passed down from parents to children through a smart circuitry system called “genes.” Scientists are still debating how much of what we do is just inherited instruction — algorithms responding to stimuli. The question is worth asking: are we so different from Samantha? Are our digitally mediated relationships any different from the relationship that forms onscreen between her and Theodore? We meet each other via chat rooms and Facebook, and sometimes we fall in love with strangers over text.
Samantha operates at the lightning-fast speed of computers, but she also gets hurt, confused, and scared. She wants to be human until she doesn’t. The film invites an important discussion about what Samantha is and what relationships of the future might look like. But Her refrains from giving us any clear answers and shows the messiest and most difficult parts of future life will be the same things that make our lives messy and difficult now — relationships.
It really only offers something like hope. Many films over the last few years have depicted futures in which AI is intimately part of our lives. Her is the first one with a pulse.