No movie has ever made me happier to be married.
All the marketing tells you it’s about a dweeby guy that falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, and it is, but the number one issue in this film is crushing human loneliness. The anxiety and awkwardness start with a truly horrifying “meet random strangers tonight” style phone sex call in which the woman brings an upsettingly unorthodox item into their shared brainspace. It is the single most awkward thing I have ever witnessed in a darkened room with a hundred strangers. This call is the most intense manifestation of loneliness, but it is far from the only one. The main character is in the middle of a divorce. He also works at a corporation that composes handwritten letters for people to send each other on special occasions. Customers provide a handwriting sample, some background information on their relationship, and a precis of what they want the letter to say, then our hero Theodore composes a letter on his computer, prints it up, and mails it. Theodore is lonely, but even the people in actual relationships are pawning off the drudgery of intimate communication to a corporation. In this bleak emotional landscape, Theodore suffers one awkward date too many and begins to consider his OS as more than a helpful friend.
His OS, “Samantha,” is voiced by Scarlett Johansson. She’s great in this, and casting made a good pick. Almost the only way Theodore can interact with her is through speech, and if you’re going to fall in love with a voice, ScarJo’s would probably be the voice you’d fall in love with. This movie would have failed entirely if Gilbert Gottfried had played Samantha.
Which one would you rather have read you your emails?
The attractiveness of the OS voice is not the only thing about Samantha that appeals to Theodore. What Theodore never seems to consider is that he is a customer of a software company, and that all of Samantha’s friendliness and understanding represent a good product doing its job. Theodore is oblivious to this. He falls in love with an operating system because the struggle to connect with people who are not programmed to be helpful and caring has beaten the shit out of him. The movie addresses the psychological problem with this – his ex-wife calls him out for being unable to deal with real people. It is sad to see a man so lonely that he starts a relationship with his smartphone, but the most heartbreaking part of this film is that the love between Theodore and Samantha is real, and that real isn’t necessarily a good thing. Samantha is a strong AI – an actual thinking, growing, learning consciousness. That allows for the complexity required for an actual emotional relationship, but it also allows for all the messiness, jealousy, and growing apart that happens in those actual emotional relationships. The film’s main theme is loneliness and how we deal with it, but its message is one that pops up all over the place in SF – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). No matter how far humanity advances, and no matter what technological feats we accomplish, we will still have to deal with all the messiness of being human. Our inner lives are the same binge-watching Netflix at two a.m. on a Sunday, flying in an interstellar ship to Epsilon Eridani, or farming with a scythe and a mule. Whatever surrounds us, we are still human and still struggling at the center of it. It’s ironic that a genre closely associated with escapist literature addresses so consistently the cold fact that we can never escape from ourselves.
Her is a very subtle brand of science fiction. Most people who think SF think spaceships, robots, and aliens, but a lot of work in the field is done in near-future settings. Snow Crash, Blade Runner, the MaddAddam trilogy, and Doomsday Book are all examples of SF that take place mere decades in the future, which is where Her happens. Life is barely different. The movie includes a lot of small touches to hint at the future-but-only-slightly setting. The main character has a next-gen smartphone that I desperately want to own. Video games project holographically and fill the entire living room. Almost all technology is voice-activated. There are no cars, just public transportation. Men’s fashion trends have everyone wearing very high-waisted pants with no belt. Other than the advent of strong AI, which researchers are not sure will ever actually be possible, this world is only a slight exaggeration of our own.
I am not proud of the things I would do to own this phone.
We are not actually falling in love with our devices yet, but if you think we’re not close I propose an experiment: Spend time in a public place, wait for a stranger to take out their phone, then take it from them and throw it into traffic, down a sewer grate, out the window, whatever. We are not in love with our tech, but we sure as hell love it. Spike Jonze just takes it one step further. He does what a lot of SF does – focuses on an aspect of current life, then exaggerates and extrapolates to explore what it means to be human. We need to interact with other consciousnesses to feel alright, and we always will. Other consciousnesses are able to make us feel like shit, and always will be able to. No matter the bizarre and life-changing innovations on the horizon, we will always and inescapably be us.
Image sources: Business Insider, IMDB