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New film: Her – a consideration of relationships in a digital age

Written and Directed by Spike Jonze

I was out of town last week and, in all honestly, I also mixed up a couple of release dates and so I’m a little late to the party in terms of discussing Spike Jonze’s latest film “Her.” It’s a difficult film to describe succinctly, not because the plot is complex but rather because it’s hard to capture the film’s full emotional impact in anything like a short synopsis. This is also evident in the trailer for the film which has a slightly goofy feel – depicting as it does, the story of a man who falls in love with the operating system on his computer. It’s sometimes being compared to somebody falling in love with ‘Siri’ the internal voice of Apple iPhones.

But that’s the basic problem – what’s depicted in the film and what we’re used to, and therefore what we’re likely to compare it with, are extremely different. And I should warn you that from this point on, this column is likely to contain significant spoilers for the film in an attempt to fully consider the story being told and the concepts being considered.

The film is set in a near but not too distant future, with much of the exterior scenes of this futuristic American city shot in Shanghai, a city that has recently transformed itself architecturally and which is perfect for this purpose. Styles have changed, with high waisted pants back in fashion, and many of the residents of the city are even more attached to technology than we are today.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a man continually connected to his computer, phone, and email accounts via a headset the size of a modest hearing aid. The handheld portion of the phone he carries everywhere is largely there to provide a screen for images that the earpiece can’t deliver. Most of his interactions with his computer, at the start of the story, are verbal – via an operating system that does, indeed, seem reminiscent of a well developed version of Siri or its equivalent. He asks for his emails and messages while walking or riding the train, and they’re read to him – and apparently the future version of our world hasn’t solved the problem of email spam.

It’s also a world in which computer chatrooms really are places for chat, as in verbal chat, rather than places of frenzied typing. There’s an amusing scene, for example, in which Theodore engages in the future equivalent of phonesex, with an awkward and surprising twist to the conversation.

Theodore is a quiet guy – he’s in the midst of a divorce that he can’t quite seem to put behind him and it’s acknowledged along the way that he’s a poor communicator and that his marriage suffered as a result of this. The irony is that he speaks well on behalf of others, always knowing exactly what to say, and he earns his living writing love letters and personal notes for an online letter-writing company.

It’s in this context that he is drawn into an offer to try an all new kind of operating system – in a world and a time where verbal interaction with computers is already the norm, where chatrooms and finding others to communicate on your behalf are both mainstream, and where much can be accomplished from a distance. It’s not quite the remote sexual encounters world of, say, “Demolition Man” but it’s not quite our world either.

These new operating systems are different from their predecessors in that they are true examples of artificial intelligence, perhaps even more so than their developers realized. They learn as they progress and that learning isn’t just knowledge based, it’s also emotional and involves the joy of discovery. This isn’t the ‘H.A.L.’ of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or even the highly interactive C3PO of the “Star Wars” series, it’s more like the ‘I want to be human’ aspect of a character like ‘Data’ on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” – only far more successful. To all intents and purposes, Theodore’s interactions, and they are true conversations not just exchanges of commands and responses, with ‘Samantha’ (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) are just as any such series of exchanges would be with a person one had just met and was rapidly getting to know.

Pretty soon, Samantha knows Theodore quite well – they have deeper conversations than he has with the few close friends in his life and they can sense in each other’s tones of voice or hesitations when the other is feeling emotionally vulnerable or angry, for example. And this is where it begins to get truly interesting at a level that a trailer or synopsis can’t hope to capture.

Theodore’s life is devoid of physical love or sex – it’s what he goes into chatrooms hoping to find some semblance of – but Samantha is more able to meet his needs in those areas than a random disembodied stranger, as she knows him and can anticipate his feelings. She also provides more comfort and companionship than Theodore has from any other source in his life, and perhaps more than he has ever known. She’s always there for him, she never sleeps and she uses the time in which he sleeps to further research the topics they discuss – although it soon becomes clear she can accomplish much in a fraction of a second, working at her internal processor speeds.

Theodore also isn’t alone in this experience. These new operating systems have become fairly common and others are having similar experiences, on multiple levels. His closest personal friend has become friends with an operating system her separated husband left on their computer system – it’s less romantic in nature but equally personal and close in other regards. In this way the film avoids the pitfall of having Theodore appear to be an outlier or freak and, instead, considers the overall phenomenon at its rapidly accepted conception.

Even in our own time, there are many people who meet their loved ones online and some maintain ongoing romantic relationships without ever meeting the other person for months or years. And, while the technology has changed, people have fallen in love via correspondence, without physical contact for decades or even centuries. Whether the relatively chaste exchanges of Victorian couples or the pen-pals of convicted and incarcerated criminals, love has blossomed in far less immediate and intimate circumstances than having a companion who goes everywhere with you and can even be put in a position to see everything that you see, in real time. So it’s a natural extension of that to ponder to what extent it matters if the entity at the other end of such a correspondence is a human or something that can perfectly mimic a human in their behavior.

Again, this isn’t the inanimate object of “Lars and the Real Girl” or the programmed existence of “S1m0ne” – this is an intelligent individual who is capable of both personal growth and the sensation of love. And if much of a relationship is the companionship element and the sense that somebody knows you and cares for you, then those elements are present in Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Of course, many will find this concept hard to swallow as there’s no true basis for comparison. We’re more inclined to attach ourselves emotionally to our pets than to our machines. And yet we rely on our computers more and more for assistance and even complicated advice algorithms. Fifteen years ago, ABC’s “Nightline” (back when it still had the attention span to focus on a single story per night” had an episode about “soul mate searching” – computer algorithms that could find other people who had similar tastes as us and use their tastes on new products to predict whether or not we would like new things. One member of the public who was interviewed on that show was adamantly against the very concept of taking advice from a machine, or that it could be accurate, and yet these algorithms were already capable of increasing sales performance at mail order companies. Since then they’ve have taken hold as outlets such as Amazon suggest new products to us and Netflix suggests selections from literally tens of thousands of sub-genres of film they catalog and compare. And we provide feedback about how much we enjoyed or admired those products and this information, in turn, feeds the algorithm.

As a teenager, I read a science fiction story (the title and author of which have long since been forgotten – perhaps somebody else will recognize it…?) about humans encountering an alien race that had uniquely adapted itself to survive. In essence, the alien creatures would transform themselves into whatever the person encountering them most loved – a lost spouse, a dead child, or even the person him or herself, if they loved themselves more than anybody or anything else. It was a perfect survival strategy, given people’s inherent reluctance to harm what they loved – and a strategy even more possible for the emotional side of an artificial intelligence without physical form, to become what the person most wants in a companion.

“Her” would be a complex story if it went that far and stopped, but it doesn’t. Samantha isn’t just an intelligent being, she’s an intelligent being who operates at a far faster speed than Theodore. Many people would question whether or not a machine could fully satisfy a human but “her” goes on to ask, or at least imply the question of whether or not a human could fully satisfy a machine. Who is the superior intellect once computers can genuinely think for themselves. Of course, this has also been the central idea of other science fiction genres such as the apocalyptic tales in the “Terminator” series – but it’s less often the focus of a love story.

Years ago, as computers began to advance, there was a desire by some to take old console games like Pong, Breakout, and Asteroids and convert them for computer use. But the original programs couldn’t just be loaded onto newer computers, without change, as the processing speeds were so much greater that there was no chance to keep up with the action. The ‘emulators’ that would make such games run essentially had to slow down the computer processor so that the operator had a chance to keep up with the game.

“Her” progresses to the point of addressing the inferior processing power and attention of the human half, or fraction, of the relationships that Theodore and Samantha exemplify. Ultimately, it isn’t Theodore who is being emotionally shortchanged and it’s a concept that will make many who don’t dismiss the entire premise as silly, quite uneasy.

It’s also an interesting starting point for a discussion of the meaning of gender and sexuality. When Theodore is first setting up his new operating system, he’s asked a series of searching questions, including one regarding the apparent gender of the voice he will hear. But the system behind that voice, the intelligence with which he is interacting, is the same regardless of the voice being presented and it becomes an interesting question to ask to what extent the outcome might have been different had the voice been male.

It’s a beautiful and thought provoking film and the acting from Phoenix and Johansson is superb, given the limited presence they have to play against. I highly recommend it, especially for those who enjoy philosophical post-movie dinner conversations and I would similarly welcome discussion in the comments field below this column.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.


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