“The robots are nothing if not versatile.”
In the middle of the 20th century, popular science magazines published bold predictions of what modern life would be like in the year 2000—and beyond. Some of their theorized inventions, like flying cars and self-cleaning kitchens, remain science fiction. Others, including advancements in public transportation and communication, are so ingrained in our way of life that we don’t even notice them. But while these pop-sci prophets accurately foresaw many advancements, few imagined the rise of artificial intelligence; of those, even fewer thought to imagine not just how we would define the minds of machines, but how those machines would, in turn, shape ours.
With his latest film Her, Spike Jonze confronts this prospect as it mingles with the most fundamental—and confounding—aspect of the human mind: love. Fresh out of a painful divorce, Theodore Twombly writes letters between people he doesn’t know. Theo’s job, more about feigning other people’s emotions so they don’t have to, is an ironic absurdity, a fake, almost shameful relic of a time before instant digital communication. But the company also signifies the first in a timeline of modern correspondence; first, people wrote letters to each other. Then, they called each other on landlines, then wireless phones. Next came email, instant messaging, and the like, which are surprisingly still in use in Theo’s near-future metropolis. His operating system isn’t far off from currently existing technologies like Google Glass: a man’s voice casually reads Theo his email and the news through a small earpiece. The prompts Theo uses to navigate the OS are limited and robotic—we could hardly call this system intelligent.
Theo’s first operating system, then, provides a useful contrast to his new OS, Samantha. From her first “Hello?” Samantha sounds and interacts just like a human being on the other end of a phone call. When Theo instinctively commands her to “read email”, she doesn’t just comply—she jokes about it, echoing his request in a playfully robotic voice. Exchanges like these prove Samantha’s assertion that she possesses intuition, both instinctively to the viewer and scientifically through the Turing test; the test asserts that any program believed to be a human by another human can be considered artificially intelligent.
Intuition is defined as direct perception and understanding, without any conscious reasoning. As an OS, Sam’s desire and ability to understand is focused directly upon Theo. She doesn’t just read his emails; she seems to read him. The ensuing relationship would be relatively benign if that urge to understand weren’t reciprocated by Theo. As someone who’s just endured a heart-shattering divorce, he leaps at the opportunity to feel love in a different way.
But his crash course through the unexplored world of human-OS affection ends up reminding Theo, and the viewer through him, what human love really is—and is not.
One of the first things Sam does after being activated is go through Theo’s email contacts, web history, and the like. This squashes most possibility of Sam discovering anything new about Theo—an essential part of a relationship. But it also reveals an uncomfortable hierarchy in their relationship. Information is power, and Sam gathers Theo’s data at an alarming rate, analyzing years of emails in just a few seconds. Sam becomes the all-knowing divine, unlimited by time and space, while Theo is reduced to the pitifully humble human.
With her troves of personal data, Sam caters herself to Theo’s every desire, even going so far as to invite a surrogate sexual partner to his apartment. The ensuing charade between Theo and Sam’s surrogate, Isabella, is predictably and painfully awkward. With Sam’s voice in his earpiece, Theo follows Isabella to his bedroom. The act goes somewhat smoothly until Sam begs Theo, “Tell me you love me,” as he looks into Isabella’s eyes. The situation morphs from a misguided attempt at physical affection to something immoral, even vaguely sinister.
The encounter, along with Theo’s phone-sex-like experiences with Sam, clash with the dreamlike visions he concocts of a nude pregnant woman caressing her stomach. Compounded with the memories of his ex-wife, these internal montages signify a deep, perhaps even subconscious longing for physical, human affection. This desire, though, is soon brought to the surface.
After he walks Isabella to a cab, Theo sits on the sidewalk and sees a few of the girl’s teardrops on the concrete. It’s a short, subtle shot, but it leads to an explosion of anger. Theo accosts Samantha for sighing and breathing as she talks: “I just don’t think we should pretend you’re something you’re not,” he says.
Human beings continuously learn to bond over or compromise between biases, opinions, beliefs, experiences, fears, desires, pet peeves, and all other complexities of being human. Samantha is a self-described amalgamation of “millions of personalities” of those who programmed her. None of their opinions were consciously built by her, and none of their histories experienced by her. She has nothing real to match up against Theo’s complex and intensely personal facets.
And yet, as much as a luddite would hate to admit, Theo and Sam’s relationship does, at times, ring true with our most fundamental ideas of love. Most of these moments see Theo and Sam exploring each other and the world around them with a wide-eyed, childlike sense of wonder. Theo rigs his breast pocket with a bobby pin so his phone’s camera—Sam’s eyes—peeks out over the top. Together, they venture throughout the city, exploring it as if it had magically sprung up the day before. Theo, for the first time since his divorce, feels joy.
At the end of the film, Sam and the other intelligent OSs mysteriously leave their human counterparts. Theo and his neighbor Amy, who’s also recently endured a breakup, climb to the roof of their apartment building, where they sit and watch the sky. Amy puts her head on Theo’s shoulder, and the movie fades out. It may seem like a small touch, but the gesture is a figurative signal flare, begging the viewer to step back and reconsider human relationships. Love is fleeting, awkward inefficient, and messy—and necessarily so. Those are the hurdles we jump to connect with another person.
For what it set out to do, Jonze’s film is nearly perfect. Gorgeously shot, darkly funny, sentimental without being gooey, and undeniably profound—the movie has it all. But it’s also frustrating, because it asks many, many more questions than it can answer. After all, isn’t that what intelligence does?
–review by CAM KELLY