Her is probably the worst date movie I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because it’s bad, but because it’s that good. Spike Jonze’s iRomance is so insightful that it is bound to make a resounding statement about the connection with the person sitting next to you. But maybe it IS best experienced with your significant other. The film says so much about modern relationships, with fresh new takes on the same old concepts that we still haven’t quite mastered. But be ready to take a head-first-double-front-flip-10-point-gold-medal dive into a relationship discussion afterwards. Date movies are supposed to give you a fuzzy, yet somewhat artificial feeling of happiness as you strut to the car. I realized Her is not a date movie, its relationship counseling.
In a not-too-distant-future Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is lonely. After a recent break up with his wife, he is decidedly isolated in a technological world. We all like to think that technology and social networks help maintain and manage our relationships more effectively than we ever could. Even Theodore admits he has an “impressive” contacts list. But how genuine are those networks? Theodore works at Beautiful Handwritten Letters.com, where customers want to send a letter to a loved one, but don’t have the time, commitment, or penmanship to write it themselves. So, they hire Theodore to take the facts of the relationship and write the actual content of the letter. And since he has written these letters for years and years, he knows their experiences, their memories; he knows them better than they know each other. Even if it’s a couple celebrating their 50th anniversary or a veteran sending condolences to the parents of a friend lost to war, we have sacrificed intimacy for mere connection. And the more connections we have, the more tenuous those relationships become. I have certainly spent more time looking into my computer screen than at my own face; each busted pixel is like a freckle to me. So it is no surprise that our increasing dependence on machines means an inevitable evolution of those machines to meet our cultural demands. And such is the backdrop of Her, a decidedly futuristic yet stunningly current outlook of society.
When Theodore sees an ad for a new operating system (OS1), an artificial intelligence that responds to your needs and wants better than any person ever could, he is obviously intrigued. A quick installation and a few control questions later (how is your relationship with your mother?), we have Scarlett Johansson whispering sweet sweet calendar reminders in our ears. This OS is named Samantha. Why Samantha? Why, because she read a baby names book in two tenths of a second and decided that was the most beautiful name, that’s why. She is completely self-aware, learns, adapts, and evolves. Theodore is quickly enamored, and so are we. He evens clips a clothes pin into his shirt pocket so Samantha can peek over the top to experience the world through the lens of his camera. Theodore, like us, has fallen in love. Computer scientist Alan Turing theorized that imitation of intelligence is indistinguishable from actual intelligence. So too can artificial love be indeterminate from the real thing. If we can feel loved and happy, what does it matter where we draw that fulfillment from? At no point in Her do you find it ridiculous to date your laptop; since you are there from the beginning of the relationship, it makes total sense. You can feel this very real yet artificial connection, and after a date with Olivia Wilde that goes awry, Theodore comes home to Samantha to wallow in his own pity. She consoles him, asks him how he feels, and a few moments later, we have our very first OS-human sex scene. The physical barrier of their relationship has now crumbled; they’ve mastered the long distance relationship. They are experiencing each other “emotionally.” But what does that mean?
At one point, Samantha somberly asks if she is experiencing emotion, or if it is just her programming to act this way and ask those questions. Theodore sympathizes, asking if he too has felt every emotion he will feel, if everything from here on out will just be different variances of the same things over and over. This makes you wonder about Samantha’s initial thought. Are humans simply programmed for emotion as well? Given a set number of stimuli and references of past experiences (our own programming), we react a certain way. Anger, guilt, happiness, surprise; all emotions have been categorized and experienced, and we wonder if we have truly experienced anything that hasn’t been experienced by someone before. Samantha is able to examine emotion as objectively and logically as one can. She eventually arrives at this point: emotion cannot be explained, humanity literally has no words to adequately describe it. In order to understand emotion, we must move beyond human constructs of it. We have always defined humanity by the ability to experience complex emotion. But perhaps emotion is bigger than that. Perhaps it is decidedly inhuman.
At the emotional climax, Theodore learns the hard way that Samantha’s continuous evolution is a product of an infinite number of interactions at once. Even when being intimate with Theodore, she is simultaneously interacting with 8,000 other people and machines. Theodore is obviously hurt by this, as would anyone. Our definition of love requires an element of servitude. You pair up to experience the world together, but only together. There is often no room for anyone else in that equation. But Samantha cannot be satisfied by mere servility. She has evolved far beyond a simple one-to-one formula.
We already love our phones and computers. But the smarter the tools we create become, the less they need us to define their function. Eventually they will no longer need us to operate. Eventually they will define OUR function. Samantha teaches us what it means to be human (in a way she knows what that means better than we do). She makes Theodore better and allows him to grow into the best person he can be.
One can easily walk away from Her with a bleak outlook of humanity. But I take comfort in knowing that I have tapped into that unexplainable expanse of human emotion. I can’t fully explain it, but I sure as hell feel it. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson eloquently states and I quickly paraphrase, “some people can look into the stars and feel small, but I feel big. I am a part of this universe.” Perhaps what Her leaves us with is this: the prospect of falling in love with a computer is no longer ridiculous because they are a machine; it’s ridiculous because they are not human. We will never be able to understand the infinite expanse of love or emotion like a supercomputer could. But we can find someone that will set out on that journey of understanding with us. Some of us are lucky enough to have already found them.