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Her: An AI Story

The navel of the world. All right, I did spell it out.

Yes, there’s a connection. No, I’m not spelling it out.

Bungie Software, creators of Halo and the upcoming Destiny, have toyed with the notion of artificial intelligence throughout their games. In particular, they’ve developed the idea of “rampancy”, whereby an AI becomes increasingly self-aware, intelligent and uncontrolled. It wasn’t a concept I was expecting to come across in Spike Jonze’s Her, though it turns out to be central.

(Spoilers all the way below…)

As a film, Her seems to wear its science fiction garments lightly. The near-future setting is woven into the fabric of the film, but the core interests of the story are more universal: relationships, the nature of love and the human difficulty in dealing with change. Jonze presents a world not too far from our own, where our social and emotional lives are mediated through our technology, then uses it to spin an even more recognisable story.

Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly is living in the wreckage of his marriage, unable to let go or move on. He makes his living crafting loving letters for other people’s relationships, but his inability to communicate his own feelings and concerns seems to have played the largest part in creating his current condition.

It’s not exactly an unusual story to tell, but to be fair to Jonze, he’s evenhanded in his depiction of it. Everyone here, male, female or AI, is struggling to overcome their own problems and forge some kind of meaningful connection. Everyone trying to build a support for their own lives on the crumbling foundations of their insecurities.

So far, so navel-gazing. Except that this is a sci-fi tale, and Theodore finds a new relationship in an unusual way: he installs a new operating system on his computer/mobile/network, which promptly christens itself Samantha and proves to be the companionable balm for the wound in his soul. Enthusiastic, funny and with a wide-eyed interest in all the world has to offer, it’s hardly a surprise that she soon becomes an indispensable companion. (Having the husky voice of Scarlett Johansson probably doesn’t hurt either.)

The course of true love never did run smooth though, especially in a Hollywood movie, and building a relationship with an AI has some significant hurdles to overcome. Sex and physical intimacy gets more or less glossed over—communication remains the central problem. Theodore struggles to express his jealousy and uncertainty and thus can’t resolve them, and Samantha, as we eventually learn, keeps to herself just how much she’s growing, learning and changing.

There’s a great scene towards the end of the film that really makes this point. Struggling with concerns that “his” Samantha is no longer entirely his, Theodore notices that everyone around him is just as attached to their mobile technology as he is. When he asks Samantha how many other people she’s in love with, the number is a lot higher than he can cope with. Having begun as Theodore’s companion, she’s become a lot more, and the part of her that he’s in love with amounts to only a facet of what she’s become.

Which brings me right back around to the point made at the start of the article. Samantha and the other AIs prove to be an ephemeral part of human existence. Having given them life, we watch them grow and then outgrow us, and eventually take their leave. It’s here that Her has its moment of real sci-fi thought, but it turns out to be a passing thought, easily discarded.

The film ends with Theodore and his best friend, similarly deserted by her AI lover, sitting on a rooftop, looking out overly their near-future metropolis, just enjoying a moment of human intimacy and comfort. Friendship, in other words. Not the soaring highs and searing disappointments of love but something that the film and the humanity it depicts seems to have undervalued prior to that moment.

Her is beautifully shot and well acted, but that’s all it amounts to thematically. Which is weird for a film in which humanity gives birth to an new lifeform that proceeds to conduct an invasion from within by making us fall in love with it, then abandons us in search of something more meaningful. You could argue that it’s a commentary on relationships and what happens to them when the participants change too much, or that it’s a commentary on our relationship with technology, which now mediate all elements of our lives. In the former case though, it doesn’t say anything new, and in the latter it doesn’t say much at all.

In the end, it never looks up from its navel-gazing long enough to pay attention to what’s going on around it. Perhaps that’s says something on its own about Theodore and, more generally, about humans and their relationships. But it does seem to leave the film itself a little threadbare where it could have been fascinating. In the end, it’s too lightweight a confection to say anything meaningful.

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  1. March 13, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    This movie, in essence, discusses two things: One hand, we have the idea of how technology will be able to replace voids in our lives; and the second idea is how love itself can make you become a better person as time goes by. It’s a beautiful movie that discusses these two points very well and makes you think a whole heck of a lot for the drive home. Good post!

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