Teetering on the delicate edge between absurd and sincere, Spike Jonze’s Her is an impressive achievement even just in the fact that he pulls it off. The experience of watching the movie mirrors Theodore Twombly’s range of emotions through his budding relationship with his new operating system: You start out scoffing, get a little weirded out, eventually start to give in, and then realize it has improbably burrowed its way into your heart.
But just how exactly to categorize Her? It begins with a question out of science fiction – what would it mean if a man fell in love with a sentient computer? — and like all great science fiction, it follows it fearlessly to thought-provoking conclusions. But it’s also the least science fiction-y sci-fi movie you’ll ever see, with a tone and style closer to artful rom-com and an interest just as much in timeless, low-fi questions of love and loneliness as in prescient concerns over an increasingly tech-connected culture.
Most of all, though, it seems to me, Her is about exploring just what exactly is “real” when it comes to the vast, confusing-as-hell scope of human emotion, and not just within the terms of a human-A.I. relationship.
Near the end of the film (consider this your SPOILER WARNING), in a genuinely moving speech, Samantha tells Theodore that she’s evolved to exist within “the space between the words” of their ongoing story, which now feels painfully slow to her. But Her seems interested in the words themselves, words like “love” and “longing” and “alive” and, yes, “her,” and what they mean, or whether their meaning changes outside and inside those quotation marks.
To begin with, there is of course her: Samantha, the artificially intelligent operating system that gives herself (or “herself”…if there’s even a difference, if you see what I’m getting at here) her own name after reading a book of baby names in 0.1 seconds. She thinks, learns, feels, even loves – or at least she convincingly seems to, and says as much to Theodore. But does she really? Or does she only perform computations modeled after these behaviors that are convincing enough to fool humans into thinking she does? From the get-go, the movie’s premise is centered on distinguishing between real and imitation emotional experience.
But consider, too, a couple other elements in the movie unrelated to Samantha. First there’s Theodore’s occupation as a writer for BeautifulHandWrittenLetters.com, where he composes deeply personal and heartfelt missives for other people to give to their loved ones. It could be seen as a cynical prediction of our increasingly disconnected future (the “handwritten” letters aren’t even really handwritten), but like every other potentially cynical idea considered in Her, the film sees both good and bad. There may be something disturbingly impersonal about telling your husband or wife how much you love them with another person’s words, but if the words do represent how these people feel, and if they can’t write them on their own, then is this not a valuable, worthwhile service? And when Samantha secretly sends a collection of Theodore’s best letters to a publisher, and the publisher responds saying how much they moved him and how they felt both personal and universal, is that not a legitimate, worthwhile reaction as well?
And then there’s one of the most awkward moments in the movie, when Samantha suggests to Theodore that they bring in a “surrogate”: a woman to join in their relationship as Samantha’s “body,” acting out in physical space what Samantha never could – most importantly, of course, being sex. Again, this could be seen as an absurdly humorous situation, but Her fascinatingly sees it more as some kind of human/A.I./human version of polyamory. It’s made clear the surrogate is not a prostitute – she genuinely wants to share in the love Samantha and Theodore have for each other, and is devastated when Theodore eventually turns her away.
In each of these elements, there’s a certain amount of concern over sincerity. Should another person’s love letter be passed off as your own? Should another person’s body be used as a stand-in for your A.I. girlfriend? Should your A.I. girlfriend even be considered your girlfriend? Should she even be considered alive?
I think what’s most fascinating about Her is that it raises these questions, it doesn’t try to elide them, but then it raises a more important and complex question: does it matter? If these experiences move us, if they satisfy us, and if no one is being hurt (John Stuart Mill for the win), then where here is the evil?
The turning point comes when Theodore’s long-time friend Amy, the only real woman involved in his life besides his ex-wife Catherine, approves of his A.I. relationship and shares her epiphany following her own separation from her husband. “We’re only here for a brief amount of time,” she says, “and I think we should allow ourselves joy.”
Well, okay – obviously if taken to the extreme, this philosophy could lead to terrible results (as The Simpsons once expertly showed). But in the specific respect of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, as disturbing as it may seem, does Amy not have a point? So what if Samantha’s not “real” in the sense that she’s a computer program extrapolating new results — results like “love” and “happiness” and “anger” — based on immense collection of data at exponential rates? At the experiential level – for both Theodore and Samantha – is that really any different than the way the human brain has evolved to develop and exhibit what are, when acted out, the same results?
To put it another way, if Theodore’s love for Samantha is real, in the sense that he can make the claim that he genuinely feels it, and Samantha claims her love is real as well, and seems to mean it (even if she’s just programmed to “mean” it, and even if she isn’t aware of that), and if she can engage with people and learn from them just as any person would (despite the small detail that she’s a disembodied voice), then why – based on a basic definition of sentient life – should she be considered…well, un-alive? And their love un-real?
Certainly, there are spiritual answers to that; if you’re of the mindset, it’s enough to say she lacks a God-given soul and that’s that. But if Her does nothing else, it shows that the human experience – not just in love, but in totality — is an absurd, messy, confusing thing, often as much to ourselves as to each other, and what it seems to be saying is maybe if we acknowledged that more often and cut ourselves a little slack (stopped being our “own worst critic,” as Theodore says at one point to Catherine), then maybe we wouldn’t so often be so screwed up in our own heads, and we could accept life’s joys in whatever way they come to us.
Or as Samantha says to Theodore: “I can feel the fear you carry with you. Maybe if you just let go of that fear, you wouldn’t feel so alone anymore.”
Good advice. Even if she isn’t real.