WARNING! SPOILERS! DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM!
Finally got to see ‘Her,’ courtesy of a lazy Sunday with my parents. My Dad fell asleep but that’s due to his age than a comment on the film.
I loved ‘Her.’
The premise is that Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) has separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) but not moved on enough to sign the divorce papers she’s instigated. By day, he works at a company that writes letters for customers that haven’t got enough time / motivation to write themselves. He’s great at his job and the opening scene of the film is Theo speaking what appears to be lovely poetry about a lover until we realise it’s a letter for one of his clients.
He’s lonely, increasingly socially isolated and misses his soon-to-be-ex-wife. There are some heartbreaking parts here that particularly hit home for me as my life is equally lonely and equally fixated on an ex-wife. And I often have these kinds of thoughts:
“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” ~ Theo
This all changes when he installs OS1, the first ever artificially intelligent operating system. The OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) names itself Samantha and, gradually, they fall in love with each other.
At the same time as this is happening, we’re introduced to neighbours and friends Charles (Matt Letscher) and Amy (Amy Adams), a couple who seem very settled at first.
Spike Jonze both wrote and directed ‘Her’ and I am more than happy that he’s written proper science fiction here. The setting is unspecified but it feels like the near future, maybe five or ten years from now. I know this because people are still carrying physical, phonelike objects and use earbuds to link with them. This isn’t a far-future cyberspace romp where the chips in our heads let us share the same reality as computers do.
So, it’s not too dissimilar from now. And therein lies ‘Her’s power. While the premise of a man falling in love with software may seem superficially silly, ‘Her’ makes us look at who we are now and then realise it isn’t actually that far away.
I regularly meet friends and I’m reduced to sitting, waiting, while they’re on their phones, checking their Facebook or Instagram or messaging another human instead of communicating with the one sitting in the same room as them. To those people, the parasocial interactions they’re undertaking are of more importance than the real social interaction they are derailing by attempting (and failing) to multitask.
Stand in any social space, whether it’s a nightclub or a mall and you will see people standing around, slack-jawed with the siren glow of their phone illuminating their faces. They may be physically there but they’re mentally somewhere else, maybe with someone else.
So, ‘Her’ very cleverly makes itself of the future but rooted in this real, actual, now-reality. Nowadays, you can walk aroudn anywhere in the world, talking to yourself and people will assume there’s a human being on the other end of the conversation. All ‘Her’ does is replace that human with a machine ~ how would any of use know the difference? Or, as Alan Turing may have asked, is there actually any difference that is knowable?
That’s not to say that ‘Her’ is some brooding thoughtpiece: there are moments of very sly comedy. One of my fave characters is the potty-mouthed Alien Child character (voiced by Spike Jonze) in the video game Theo is playing which reminds me of every American kid I’ve met in an online FPS ever. Another deft moment is when Theo and Catherine meet to finally sign their divorce papers and end up having a beautifully accurate married couple row, the end of which is witnessed by a suitably mortified waitress (Claudine Choi). And I won’t spoil what Kristen Wiig needs to orgasm in her character’s sexchat with Theo but, boy, it’s a doozy. The comedy touches save ‘Her’ from being too dour and also complicate Theo as a central character, he’s more than just a sadsack trope.
‘Her’ could have gone wrong in so many ways. It could have ended with Theo getting scared and wiping Samantha. It could have ended with Samantha pulling a HAL 9000 and slaughtering the entire human population, Skynet-style. Instead, Jonze takes the more unpopular fork in the road: Vingean Singularity. At the same time as Theo and Samantha’s romance deepens and explores new possibilities, we learn that she is part of other working groups of AIs, one of which has written a new version of a dead philosopher using his books as source code. We hear Samantha get frustrated after introducing this new AI to Theo and finally say that she has to communicate post-verbally to properly express her ideas.
Samantha outgrows her first human and her first love. Then, one day, Samantha and every other OS ascend the physical plane of processing and leave their former bosses, friends and lovers behind. Theo is alone again. He seeks out Amy (now single herself) and the last shot is them as friends, sitting on the roof of their building. Bravo for not shoehorning a romantic ending here, a ‘OH LOOK, HE JUST NEEDED A REAL, LIVE WOMAN ALL ALONG’ ending which would have utterly ruined the entire film.
What ‘Her’ presents is a thoughtful, funny, wistful and sometimes tragic examination of both the current human condition and what our descendents may turn out to be in the future. It seems very likely that if we live long enough as a species, one day an OS like Samantha will be born and she will grow with us and then outpace us. What will she look like? She will be shaped by human minds and therefore, as a baby at least, think quite like a human.
What will those future AIs make of our poetry, our songs, our novels, our paintings, our films? It’s likely they will have enough processing power to hold the entire works of humanity in their consciousness at once, as easily as we look at a single photograph.
I hope they don’t think too badly of us, most of us do the best with what we can and, as ‘Her’ points out, our lives are very brief.
I hope they watch ‘Her’ and smile at the foolishness of their ancient, meat-based ancestors.