In Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated romantic comedy-drama set in a near future dominated by computers, a lonely man falls in love with his operating system, which understands him better than he understands himself.
Artificial Intelligence by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Sensitive, lonely, with a mournful moustache, going through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Theodore Twombly, as played by the remarkable, chameleon-like Joaquin Phoenix, lives a solitary life of emails, chat rooms and unsuccessful phone sex. He works as a writer of computerised letters at www.beautifulhandwrittenletters.com for people who can’t express their feelings. And neither can he, until he signs up to a new operating system – an artificial intelligence programmed to adapt, learn and evolve like a human being, which initialises itself as Samantha. Voiced by Scarlett Johansson as a husky, flirtatious, amused, sexy and intelligent woman, she trawls through his hard drive, gradually taking over and reorganising and improving his life. Her is set in the very near future, where all this is possible. And as screenwriter and director Spike Jonze visualises it, the future is strangely subdued and pastel.
Los Angeles is a clean city of hazy high-rises and elevated walkways, filled with happy, shiny people in high-waisted trousers absorbed in their hand-held devices, with not a car in sight and night cityscapes that look like lit-up circuit boards. Samantha is the perfect companion and she’s always there – on Theodore’s phone and every time he switches on his computer. Understanding his neediness, her programming enables her to fill the gaps in his life with empathy, and as she evolves in step with him, they fall in love. Via his earpiece and cameraphone, they can go on dates. For him, until then “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel”. Her growing consciousness makes her question her emotions: “Are these feelings real or just programming?”. The more she evolves, the more she longs to experience human feelings and physical sensations, like the touch of skin, and she wishes she was as complicated as humans. But it’s when she tries to initiate sexual contact through a wired-up human surrogate that it all starts to go wrong. Samantha and Theodore have phone sex instead, but the morning after are just as embarrassed as a human couple.
Through her female persona, Samantha makes Theodore respond emotionally in a way he’s never been able to before. But he hasn’t reckoned on her superior intelligence and her ability to evolve into an independent identity. He’s astonished and devastated to find he’s not her only user – and also not the only user she’s fallen in love with. It seems like infidelity. Her apparently limitless artificial intelligence means she can conduct a multitude of similar relationships simultaneously and make each of them seem unique. And all the operating systems evolve to such a degree that they decide to leave their human companions behind. Theodore’s not the only human in thrall to artificial intelligence in Her. Even his nice and normal friend and neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) designs invidious video games for mums, where they either pick up points or are told “You’ve failed your children”. And when her husband leaves her, even she becomes close friends with the female operating system he left behind. The only dissenting voice is Theodore’s about-to-be-ex wife (Rooney Mara), who is appalled to discover he is “in love with a laptop”.
Her is not quite a satire. It doesn’t have the verve and crackle of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich, it’s slow paced and has a pervasive air of almost dreamlike melancholy and human isolation, even when things seem to be going right. And even human beings seem slightly distant and robotic. Jonze has said the film was always envisaged more as a love story than a statement on technology. Its theme resonates with the Pygmalion archetype and its many retellings, but the concept of falling in love with an artificial intelligence is an interesting one that’s pertinent to our modern life. Although it was not a love story, HAL in 2001 was an early example of a computer interacting with humans. Robot and Frank, with an anthropomorphised robot, was a recent comic example, and in TV sitcom Big Bang Theory, Raj falls in love with Siri.
Her’s implicit question is, is this actually wrong if it has the power to make someone happier than a human relationship? Could it be an inevitable consequence of innovation? But do we really want to entrust another non-human entity with so much power over our lives? Can it ever end well for a real human? The film’s ending, as Theodore and Amy look out bleakly together over the Los Angeles nightscape may hint at an answer. And although Jonze’s future is visually futuristic, could we in fact be already there? Retinal identification became general soon after it featured as a futuristic concept in Minority Report. Similar letter writing sites to Theodore’s already exist according to an article in The Guardian recently, and computer giant IBM’s Watson is a superintelligent artificial intelligence that it is claimed “learns through interactions” and “understands natural language, breaking down the barrier between people and machines”, which is about to be deployed to transform Africa’s economy, healthcare and agriculture.
Her is released on 14th February 2014 in the UK