“I’m becoming much more than they programmed. I’m excited!”
A man falls in love with his computer’s operating system. That’s the premise of Her, a film by Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation) starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannson, and Amy Adams. I’ll admit, the premise sounded so dumb to me that I put off watching this film for a long time. Well, now that I’ve watched it, I’m sad that I did—this is a brilliant film that hits hard in the feelings department too. I don’t think it’s meant to be viewed literally, like most sci-fi films; instead, it’s more like a metaphor or allegory, commenting on what it means to be human and have human relationships by showing us the relationship that develops between a lonely human and this artificial intelligence. In fact, there are some noticeable holes in the science behind this film, so I’d be hesitant to call it a science fiction film at all. It’s a solid drama and romance, though, with some important philosophical things to say about human nature, human relationships, and, of course, love.
The plot follows Theodore, a lonely young man living sometime in the future working a job where he writes handwritten notes for people to give to their loved ones, effectively manufacturing the intimacy of those relationships. Theodore’s struggling through the final stages of a bad divorce, and is trying to connect with other people, but can never seem to find meaning in his relationships. A new operating system is released that promises a true artificial intelligence—a consciousness. He downloads and installs this OS, which names herself Samantha, and quickly finds that it understands him better than any human in his life. As the advanced OS develops its own concept of self and feelings, both begin to feel a deeper connection, culminating with Theodore “dating” his OS. This is far from simple, though, and both Theodore and Samantha quickly discover the complexities and difficulties of a human-AI relationship.
I’m yours, and I’m not yours.
With the plot being what it is, I expected the main conflict to be in how Theodore’s relationship with Samantha fits into society, but society is surprisingly understanding of their relationship, with Theodore and Samantha eventually going on a double date with friends and it feeling pretty normal. Avoiding this conflict allows the film to focus on the more interesting problem of what makes us human, and how a relationship with a non-human would complicate things. Though they initially feel like soulmates, there are some very different ways that an AI goes about love, which causes some frustration for both Theodore and Samantha. But the failures and successes of their relationship also shed light on the failures of human relationships. As Theodore falls deeper into his relationship with Samantha, we begin to see the shortcomings and failures that led him into her virtual arms, providing some smart social commentary on how we need to treat each other.
Coming into this film, I was expecting it to be somewhat stiff and awkward, as most movies about artificial intelligence seem to be. Flashes of Blade Runner and Ex Machina ran through my head initially, and I thought I’d be watching a film about how not-human this relationship is, getting caught in the uncanny valley even as Theodore clung to it. Director Spike Jonze has a talent for getting right to the heart of things, and I was impressed with how human they made Samantha feel. She’s not human, but she has real feelings, fears, and aspirations that play out in the film. In the end, it is the differences between Samantha and a real human that drive the plot, but it’s not in a stiff, mechanical manner. Instead of falling short of humanity, Samantha proves to outgrow it, with her feelings and aspirations running deeper than anyone could have imagined.
This is undoubtedly an intelligent film, but it’s one that focuses more on feelings than action or dry thought, like so many other films about AI. I don’t think it sets out to ask tough questions about the moral quandaries of artificial intelligence; instead, it asks us to take a critical look at our own relationships. Although this is a film about a human and an AI falling in love, it’s really about the failure of humans to connect with each other. We see the loneliness in Theodore as he tries in vain to connect with other humans, and the relief as he’s finally able to connect with Samantha. I initially thought this would be a film about Theodore being some kind of reclusive freak, but he’s very much a product of the society he lives in.
Her is a smart drama with relevant social commentary disguised as a romantic sci-fi film. If you’re looking for a cerebral thinking film like Ex Machina, you may be disappointed. It probably has more in common with films like Lost in Translation than other films about AI. But if you’re looking for a film about how humans connect, and how we too often fail to, this cannot be missed. Be aware that, for a film about a bodyless AI and a human falling in love, this film can get pretty explicit at times. It wasn’t gratuitous, but it did surprise me in places. That said, this is a great film that I’d recommend to anyone looking for an emotionally rich drama about human relationships.
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Director: Spike Jonze
Genres: drama, indie, romance, sci-fi