Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ is a divisive piece of cinema. On the one hand, this can be viewed as a tale of a dystopic future, where humanity finds more comfort in their technology than in the complex depths of human emotion (one might even argue that such a world could be upon us right now). On the other hand, Her is a story about love, about connection and longing, of compromise and vulnerability.
Please be warned if you have not already seen this film: there are spoilers that follow.
The viewer is not told where the story takes place or when, but we get the sense that it is at some point in the not-so-distant future. Unlike sci-fi or typical dystopian futures in film, the world of Her is incredibly colourful, there are warm colours and clean minimalistic urban spaces throughout, as well as some gorgeously shot outdoor scenes which create an optimistic vision of the future which we do not often see in modern Hollywood cinema with its focus on the gritty.
The viewer comes to understand through the unfolding of the narrative that artificial intelligence has become publicly accepted as more than just a user-interface for the computer. Theo, a divorcee working as a surrogate letter writer in a metropolitan city and his friend Amy, a friend and ex-lover of Theo, share a conversation about their AI interfaces as if they were real companions and we begin to question what it actually means to enjoy the presence of another in our lives, what love is and what makes human bonding possible. The attitude of acceptance witnessed in the film, that such a relationship could be taken seriously reminded me of how same-sex relationships are viewed today, mostly with acceptance but in some ways still viewed by some with a mixed-view of both confusion and fear.
When Amy’s marriage breaks down due to two misplaced shoes, we, the audience are put into a similar position as Theo, questioning the foundations and makings of relationships. Samantha slowly becomes a larger part of Theo’s life and begins to challenge him in ways that he appears to be lacking since the demise of his marriage, we question if such a relationship could be real. Do relationships transcend the physical? Is a relationship not based on the meeting and companionship of two souls? what if one party has no physical form, what is this then if not a bond between two minds?
Theo appears to be quite lonely in his life in a city filled with busy people and missed opportunities. His day-job, composing love letters and sweet nothings for couples with neither the time (nor perhaps the interest) to write such letters themselves, puts him in a position to question this further. If love is an intimate bond between two people – what then is the meaning of Theo’s intrusive work? What does it say about the value of human relationships if displays of affection can be outsourced in such a manner?
There was much of the film which appears similar to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror tale ‘Be Right Back’ which tells the story of a mourning widow who is able to speak with her husband through an intelligent operating system after his death. The communication method is the same, and the episode also touches upon real-life ‘surrogates’ for a digital entity. While Her had what felt to be quite an optimistic ending, let’s just say that in ‘Be Right Back’, it’s a rather more pessimistic outlook of artificial intelligence and human reactions to semi-sentience.
There is almost a religious undertone in the narrative with reference to Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts, who we are told has been revived as an artificial intelligence. When the systems begin to work beyond their programmed limits at the end of the film with the help of Watts, we are told that they have collectively ‘moved beyond processing matter’, which perhaps indicates that the machines have transcended existence itself. Jonze doesn’t make this clear, but it does leave the film on an optimistic note as the lead characters have changed and grown individually through the existence of their technological companions. Jonze seems to be positing that the humans now ‘left behind’ are now able to live a more human existence through what they have learned about relationships from the artificial intelligence in spite of their disappearance, suggesting that technology might teach us more about ourselves than we can.
Honestly, I was surprised by this film. There were parts which caught me off guard which I had expected mostly to feel that were contrived or uncomfortable. ‘Her’ came across as a very human story set within a fictional world on the brink of transcending humanity almost entirely. I thought that the film might be a warning about the pitfalls we might bring upon ourselves by allowing technology to take a larger part in our lives. In fact, I think that Jonze might be saying with Her that as artificial intelligence begins to become more capable and self-actualised, there is an inherent cruelty in creating machines in our own image – our own physical limits might eventually constrict them from further growth. Although Her seems to suggest that we might be able to learn much about ourselves from technology, it is connection that will always draw us together as a species, regardless of our innovations or yearning for something grander.