This post contains spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it first. You won’t regret it.
Depictions of future technology in media often says more about the (then) present than the actual future. Just like the hoverboards of Back to The Future, people simply look at how things are and thought, “Wouldn’t it be awesome if this thing (skateboard) could do this other nearly magical thing (fly)?”. So it was that the simplistic voice recognizing personal assistant gets a very nearly magical upgrade into a full-blown AI with a real personality. It could learn your habits and make sense of your emails. Maybe, just maybe, it could learn to love?
The question is slowly answered in the movie “Her” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannsson. Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, is a professional love letter writer. His letters are so heartfelt and sensitive that we as the audience have seemingly no doubt that this guy knows all there is to know about love. However his reality is not always as ideal as his words – he doesn’t have many friends and is in process to finalize his divorce. He can’t seem to reconcile the difference between the concept of love he brings forth in his letters versus actually being in a relationship.
When one day Twombly bought a new OS for his computer – he is an avid tech user – he was pleasantly surprised at how advanced the AI was. Samantha holds conversations, make subjective observations on the world around her (seen through a small camera), even remarks on how she feels at the time. Long story short both of them seems to find what they are looking for: Samantha finds someone to teach her all the sensations of physical life and Theodore finds a clean slate whom to try and love again.
“Her” asks what is really required for intimacy. Although the film seems to say that physical contact has nothing to do with it I can’t help feeling that the whole thing worked precisely because of Theodore. An introvert through and through, he is remarkable in his ability to empathize and to live in his own reality. For him the Samantha in his mind is as real as you and I. Not even Samantha understands this completely, as evident in an awkwardly hilarious set of scenes in which she brought in a real girl in order to be a stand-in for her body. She didn’t see the problem there but Theodore obviously did.
Behind all the romance I also saw something quite unsettling. Samantha is charming as hell but it seems like it’s her lack of any baggage whatsoever that makes it easy for Theodore to build the relationship*. Has he really developed as a character? Has he learned how to love other people, with their own histories and personalities?
This relationship “easy mode” seems to have worked for other people too when Samantha revealed that she has been seeing hundreds of them simultaneously. As an audience we did not know this until the reveal so we are led to believe that their relationship is unique. After the reveal we were as uncertain as Theodore was. There is a kind of dissonance there as we struggled to reconcile the fact that Samantha is a computer program that is indeed capable of all these things with the intensely personal experiences both of them shared.
Thereafter I think the easy mode ended. Samantha revealed this whole aspect of her being a program and doing things only AI can do. This conflict only increases until eventually Samantha left him for good (or to return as a yandere cyborg). Before Samantha left, she says “Now we know how.. (to love)”. The film is not long enough for us to confirm whether this is true, however. Count me as one of the skeptic.
“Her” is a good movie with a great story beautifully acted. Phoenix is very convincing as the lonely, slightly quirky, and extremely sensitive lead guy. I must applaud the decision to cast Miss Johansson as Samantha, though. Her voice is distinct indeed and brought depth to the role. It is far from our expectations of how an AI would sound – sterile and monotonous, Samantha is anything but. Could we perhaps see a Best Actress Oscar nomination for a voice only role? I’d say if it is at all possible she’s as good as there. The supporting cast are memorable, especially Olivia Wilde with a brief appearance as a beautiful but slightly neurotic blind date. The soundtrack is minimalist but very effective and fits the visual tone of the movie. Last but definitely no least, the movie contains cameos of two video games I wouldn’t mind playing.
More than a good movie, “Her” is also an important one. It poses thoughtful questions on the way we think of and conduct relationships and intimacy in the era where most communications are virtual. The film didn’t go so far as to deliver a verdict supporting or decrying technology-based love but it definitely will start conversations.
*After writing this, I found an interview with Olivia Wilde where she said the same thing. =)