I’ve had a lot of trouble digesting Her, Spike Jonze’s complex, difficult 2013 sci-fi romance. There’s actually a lot of ideas packed into the movie, and teasing them out and absorbing them is a heck of a task. I’ll put up a spoiler warning though I’ll steer away from describing the plot because there’s just so much to discuss.
Firstly, it’s a sci-fi film that looks at social and interpersonal impacts of a technology that’s not too far away (also note the herbivorous males in Japan embracing virtual girlfriends in Love Plus and so on), and not only does it incorporate this new technology, but it portrays changing social attitudes to it. I found the latter a bit confounding, as it was difficult to assess the normality of Theo’s behaviour, and Jonze doesn’t preach about whether it’s positive or negative. From our perspective, he’s a good-natured but socially awkward loser, and his romance with his OS aberrant and self-destructive, but other characters (and society) treat it more and more as normal – I’m reminded of how internet dating was an embarrassing thing years ago but now it’s much more accepted (or so I’m told).
In one scene Theo explains a video game he plays to his date, which currently is cringeworthy behaviour, but perhaps it’s normal in Jonze’s future setting. I guess acceptance of video games is another thing that has progressed in these recent years, and interestingly enough (and on-point!) Amy, Theo’s friend is in games development building lifestyle simulators, in particular a game about playing a cool mother. Amy is not a mother, indeed (spoiler warning) she falls out of a flesh-and-blood relationship and into a virtual one, and there are no raised eyebrows as to the content of the game as there might be for us. Are her positive euphemisms and all-embracing attitude of the semblance of real things delusional, or is this the future for us too?
Sci-fi has played around with whether AIs “are people”, and outside of dumbed-down popular romanticised portrayals, AI emotions are usually treated as simulacra. Again, it’s difficult to figure out whether you’re supposed to take a fantastic view and treat Samantha’s (the AI’s) feelings as legitimate and care about them, or a purely materialistic approach that says she’s not a real person. On the other hand, perhaps that ambiguity is intentional, and Jonze is asking the audience how they respond rather than telling them how to respond.
On the conservative side, Theo’s ex-wife Isabella doesn’t recognise the relationship as legitimate and looks down on it. Theo’s blind date Olivia Wilde (lucky man) is his last attempt at human romantic relations; she’s scarred by past (human) encounters, and there’s an interesting subtext about whether Theo is in control during their meeting – he’s certainly very uncomfortable. More widely, the male characters are all kind of neutered; once again you have to wonder if Jonze is making a point, or he’s just raising the issue, or if that’s just overthinking a narrative coincidence.
Aside from looking at the technological side of the relationship, Her examines the nature of romantic relationships. Does biological desire make sense for a non-biological entity? Does desire for such an entity make sense? Theo is more attached to Samantha than the other potential romantic interests in his life (she’s very thoughtful – as she was designed), yet they wind up having very familiar kinds of disputes. At one point Samantha hires a sex surrogate (apparently this is a real therapeutic role – AI excluded), and something akin to an awkwardly received fantasy roleplay transpires, with a third party who endeavours to remain “in-character” and transparent.
There’s so much more in the background – a technological progression occurring in the background that leads to a singularity ending that I’m ambivalent about. On one level it’s a cop-out of dealing with the the relationships involved; on the other hand the film is about technological progress and thinking AIs so these developments are well within the ballpark. Also Theo does develop, becoming able to communicate with his ex-wife, analysis of that will not be provided here as there’s already too much for me to handle.
It’s also interesting that Her choses to call the AIs OSs, initially because they run your networked devices (a bit like Siri): “OS” is a far less threatening name than “AI”, which has a long history in fiction and non-fiction with lots of baggage. This is a consumer-perspective of technology that fits with the modern packaging of incredible ingenuity and power into innocuous user-friendly packages, and I found this angle both plausible and telling.
Theo’s job is about writing letters to people on behalf of others, referring to past life events and in-jokes that he created himself – a human transparently intermediating human relationships. Some have claimed that this is unrealistic, but I think that both misses the point, and doesn’t acknowledge the greeting card industry, form letters, document templates, documents written by others for signoff, and other mechanical-isation of human interaction, from which it’s a smaller (and arguably more human) departure. There’s much more here: whether this happy and creative job is a vision of a prosperous and fulfilling future, or a sign of increasing and increasingly accepted inauthenticity in human relationships, and how it ties into the main theme of AI-human romantic relationships and the sex surrogate, but that’s another essay unto itself.
As you can see, there’s an incredible amount of ideas in Her. I can’t tell how much is intentionally inserted by Spike Jonze, but the fact that it spurs so much thought is fantastic. The settings and music are great, but my attention was mostly captured by all the concepts. “Her” is definitely not for everyone, but if it speaks to you, it will really make you think.