Every now and then, a film comes along that defines our present moment. That film is Her.
In 2014, the world teeters on the edge of a technological future far beyond the dreams of Jules Verne, and we’re not all flying around in spaceships. Instead, we’re relentlessly plugged in, disconnected, and analyzed in a consumerist, solipsistic age. Her, set in a slightly futuristic, rose-tinted Santa Monica, avoids being another hackneyed robot disaster scenario and assuages our anxieties with a surprisingly bearable vision of the world ahead. In director Spike Jones’ latest film, people of the future 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 phones. 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 guy 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, 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 (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 unwanted emails.
Samantha becomes a sort of social experiment on both Theodore and us, 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. 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 answers. It only offers something like hope. Maybe robots won’t destroy us after all.
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.