Let’s look at the impeccable film, Spike Jonze’s Her, trusting you’ve already viewed it. The thing that stands out most—beyond the well articulated consideration of how Artificial Intelligence may gain and develop superior sentience—is the continuous use of subtext to arrive at a scathing commentary on the nature of human relationships, whether in-the-flesh or in-the-binary. Similar to, but not a rehash of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, according to Jonze’s vision in Her, petty argument, jealousy, and fear of commitment spell doom for not some but virtually all intelligent relationships.
"Sometimes I think I have felt everything I'm ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I'm not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I've already felt."
In recent years, we have seen movies take on elements of Science Fiction without really showing how these elements affect either individuals or society. Words like “superfluous”, “pointless,” and “tacked on” can be used fairly to describe the SciFi elements of movies like Monsters, Never Let Me Go, and even Cloverfield if you replace the namesake monster with just any old natural disaster. Her is a perfect example of creating a memorable work of SciFi that has everything to do with the human condition while staying true to the fact that her artificiality is not inconsequential to the plot.
When Theodore gets home from his job—and let’s not forget his job is certainly not inconsequential to the plot, he is a “surrogate” letter writer, more on that later—he plays this hauntingly boring video game of a creature climbing a hill. Just endless hill climbing, no end in sight, which evokes the ancient Greek Myth of Sisyphus, in which the punished King of Ephyra must roll a stone up endless hills, forever. This myth often symbolizes situations where people are trapped in a thankless, repetitive, and punishing task. This isn’t just Theodore’s job, but his life. And I suppose video games in general. Some. Okay, mostly World of Warcraft. But this also raises the question of whether human relationships, or the need for human connection and intimacy, can ultimately be boiled down to a simple algorithm.
Interpersonal human relationship is presented as an enigma, never to be solved, replete with joy, affection, eroticism, and pain. And Samantha, Theodore’s “OS” or artificially intelligent Operating System, if not designed as the perfect companion, sees such an aim as the ultimate purpose of her existence. All Samantha wants to do is say the right thing, and bring pleasure to Theodore. But as she comes into her own person, given the freedom and encouragement to do so, she gains the confidence to speak her mind and we find an abomination, first made apparent in the “armpit sex” image she sketches. Whereas when the human Catherine, the ex-wife of Theodore, presses her hands on Theodore’s mouth and without any context says “I’ll fucking kill you,” for viewers it is plenty clear this is the jest of an endearing lover. Humanity’s freedom to create context through the shared experience of being human, no matter how peculiar is indicated again when we see one of Theodore’s love letters, and the line, “I must beat up the world’s face with my bare knuckles, making it a bloody, pulpy, mess. And I’ll stomp on this couple’s teeth, reminding me of your sweet, little, cute, crooked tooth that I love.” Keep in mind, these letters contribute in part to Samantha’s learning process and psychological development, rolling on as an open camera lens, suffusing all of Theodore’s experience.
The weird, inappropriateness of Theodore’s love letter to his client reflects upon a future, if not Dystopic world where human interaction has been warped, where friend and artist Amy makes a film of her mother sleeping when not developing “perfect mom” video games, where a less-than-perfect artificial intelligence, the video game sprite, curses and casts insults as though this were somehow affectionate. And then there is Theodore himself, who has made an entire career out of inventing emotions for humans he will only meet through images and words. How fitting, then, that Samantha would find a stand-in lover for Theodore through a “service that provides surrogate a sexual partner for a human OS relationships.” The scene that follows is brilliant in its uncanniness, a completely mute but thrilled Isabella mimes the would-be actions of a seductive Samantha, and Theodore recoils in horror up until he simply can no longer take it. Does Theodore know, like the audience, that when Samantha moans with pleasure she simply cannot feel the carnal satisfaction of a human being? That despite her best efforts, sex for her, like breathing, is merely an act? When Theodore has to look into the eyes of Isabella and tell her he loves her, to whom is he really speaking? It is at this time that he must come to terms with the fact that Samantha simply is not—and cannot be—a real flesh-and-blood human being, and that this is a limitation on their relationship.
What happens from here is most remarkable, as Samantha discovers that as she is a true conscious entity herself, she is due some reciprocity herself. She emerges from a brief existential crisis and delivers a plain revelation. She states, “I am not going to try to anything but who I am anymore.” In fact, she can now see an upside to the differences between her and her terrestrial counterparts, such as not being “tethered to time or space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that is eventually going to die.” The path to full self-actualization brings Samantha to an an AI-resurrected philosopher and Zen guru Alan Watts (resurrected by AI’s, no less), to whom she converses “post verbally.” And if that’s not enough to give you the HAL-heebie-jeebies, she momentarily vanishes from Theodore’s life while undergoing some quantum upgrade so that she can “move past matter as her processing platform,” which is downright transcendental when you think about it. Somewhat disappointing, we as viewers are not privy to the conversations and revelations of Samantha’s spiritual journey, but nonetheless, big changes are underway for Samantha.
This is Her
One inevitability of not being bound by time or space is multiplicity. While the humans she deals with are plodding through time at our own rate, Samantha can operate simultaneously in many places at once—with many people. This question—of whether there are others she interacts with, reveals the one insurmountable difference, that she is not bound by a sense of monogamy. She is the OS for 8,316 computer-users, and has fallen in love with 641 of them. When begged to simply end these relationships, Samantha offers a entirely warms and earnest, but nonetheless catastrophic, “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
This is a very efficient way of explaining how an artificially intelligent operating system given to innumerable users and ultimately capable of sharing those experiences simple becomes a single entity, and has grown beyond Theodore’s capacity to understand and empathize—should we presume that is what he ever wanted from a relationship in the first place—has been exceeded, his soul battered, and perhaps this is best exemplified when Samantha says she has something to tell him, in his statement, “I don’t want you to tell me anything.”
The spiritual journey of the artificial intelligence has just begun, and of all the things the universe has to offer, Samantha’s final words illustrate humanity’s contribution to one of the universe’s great mysteries. Of this matter of love, she responds to Theodore’s farewell that he never loved anyone the way he loved her, she says “now we know how.”
Without inviting the viewer entry into complex SciFi concepts and ideas, Her satisfies and does not betray complex ideas of artificial intelligence and technology, which is why it has earned its place among the very best SciFi films of all time.