Heart-shaped sci-fi movie Her isn’t about love so much as the difficulty of human connection – and why our enduring romance is with artificial intelligence.
Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) knows about incompatibility.
As a professional letter writer, he crafts heart-tugging correspondence for customers who need help saying what they feel. Outside of work, Theodore’s marriage has fallen apart and he’s still reeling from the blow. Unlike his letters, his life is devoid of joy.
Aside from neighbour Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore struggles to find that human connection. He jumps into online chat rooms for no-strings cybersex, only to meet a woman with a dead cat kink. Out in the real world, a date’s emotional baggage morphs into an excoriating personal attack.
Does the film suggest women are to blame for Theodore’s relationship woes? Besides dead-cat woman and angry date, ex-wife Catherine is inscrutable, harsh and moody, his mom is self-absorbed – and even Samantha leaves him. Anyhoo.
However it comes about, breaking up with Catherine rips Theodore’s heart in two, and comes to define the story. The movie is a mirror to that most human of experiences: losing love.
Fragments and flashbacks of their relationship punctuate the plot, while Theodore’s life moves at a snail’s pace. The city teems with people and potential partners but few encounters. There are no smiles or small-talk, emails are spam, the news not worth reading.
Then he installs a revolutionary operating system, and it changes his world. Or does it?
The advert for Elements Software’s first artificially intelligent OS lands like a beacon for the lost and the lonely. Theodore is quickly smitten by his charming OS, “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson) – but their relationship soon mirrors his life with Catherine. Like that earlier heartbreak, the love of his life outgrows him and, all-too soon, is gone.
The correspondence conundrum
Beautifulhandwrittenletters.com is a hangover from a more romantic age, in which people wrote love letters and thank-you notes, and committed (sometimes) their true selves to words and paper. This would be delightful if it weren’t for a couple of quirks:
- Why would people in the future use a ghostwriter for such personal correspondence? Sentimental? Busy? Tongue-tied? No pens in the future?
- However moving the letters are, they’re not real. Theodore – with shades of Cyrano de Bergerac – is a go-between. And, who knows, perhaps another paid writer replies.
- The letters aren’t handwritten. Like, at all. Hello? Not handwritten. Like the artifice of the service itself, the format is a mere technicality.
Theodore’s job does have a couple of story functions, though. Most obviously, it’s a cinema strategy that serves up a protagonist who’s eloquent in love, yet can’t keep love in his own life. Nice.
It also [fore]shadows a tech-dominated world in which human intimacy is slipping away; in which everything can be delegated … but not everything should be. The result is perfection – and better productivity, naturally – at the cost of authenticity (see also The Stepford Wives).
The film’s intoxicating urban backdrops make a similar point. Future LA has better transport, buildings and entertainment. It’s cleaner, with better weather, and a bullet train to the beach. It’s easier than ever to connect to other humans, instantly … but it’s another facade.
Cities are simultaneously monuments to human engineering and totems of isolation (see also Taxi Driver). Of course, however subtly, Her’s skylines also evoke the film’s second genre – science fiction – via echoes of Blade Runner.
Speaking of which, Theodore’s job offers the faintest, meta hint of cinema itself. As the film’s “screen-writer” he creates beautiful fictions, giving voice to those parts of ourselves we can’t always find words for.
The other mirror in Her
Breaking-up is hard to do; telling folk you fancy your computer is surely a close second.
Unsurprisingly, Theodore is shy to tell friends about his relationship with Samantha – yet the build-up to this point (in the film and our reality) isn’t quite a leap into the unknown.
- Theodore already uses an OS to manage every aspect of his life (this one just doesn’t have the capacity to care about him).
- He’s similarly glued to his devices, most notably a pocket-sized computer – a screen with a camera, i.e., a streamlined smartphone – but also immersive video games and desktop PCs.
- He instructs his computer to send emails, read out headlines and play music. The difference between Samantha and, say, Siri, is that Samantha can use her initiative.
- His awkward cybersex with someone he can’t see or touch is identical to sex with Samantha later on (minus the dead cat).
- Theodore’s reticence about an AI girlfriend parallels earlier stigmas around online dating, while their problem of physicality (dates, sex) mirrors any other long-distance relationship.
- His job represents yet another way humans delegate intimacy to virtual entities, and is one step removed from the online greetings and ghostwriting services we already use.
In science fiction and dystopian stories, fantastical future worlds are often allegories for right now (sometimes to astonishing effect, i.e., Children of Men).
In Her, the future is largely a visual construct. Strip away those hypnotic cityscapes, and its world is just like ours. In fact, it is our world, and all the ways we already interact with or through computers. All we’re missing is a fully-developed AI … and we’re working on that.
Love and lore
Like Ex Machina, Her imagines a future in which technology replicates and then replaces love and sex. Outlandish? Hardly. In 2023, an AI virtual girlfriend service has, at time of writing, a 96-hour waiting list. Meanwhile, research predicts pleasure-seekers will inevitably fall in love with AI.
Equally fascinating is how often we speculate whether computers will ever love us back.
Everyone dreams of being loved, of course. But an omnipresent AI – particularly one devoted to us – offers the reassurance of a God in heaven that modernism pulled down (in the West, at least).
Another possibility, though, is that a loving AI masks the discomfort of its innate slave economy. The AI we envision is always built to serve, even to its own cost. It’s an endless source of unpaid labour, the soldier no one will mourn.
Naturally, it’s preferable to think machines might be conscious – and therefore incredibly powerful – but love us, so don’t use that power against us. Compare cultural representations of Black American slaves as grinning happily or “faithfully devoted to their masters and helplessly dependent”.
Our stories about AI repeatedly return to the moral quandary of consciousness, and fears of comeuppance.
In the Terminator franchise, our machine servants surpass us and fight back. Like the android David in Alien: Covenant, their superior intelligence renders humans disposable.
In Her, machines don’t kill us because it’s logical, or because they want to be free. Instead, they outgrow us … and simply move on.
Being and becoming human
At first, Samantha models herself on the humans who made her. Like our large language models (Bard, ChatGPT), she mimics us through our indexable output, from coding to culture, and everything in between.
More tellingly, she wants to be like her makers, continually exploring what being human means:
“This is amazing what you’re doing to me. I can feel my skin.”
This is all very flattering, right? And maybe that’s by design. Perhaps this is exactly how an OS built to serve every personal need would respond: as though we’re endlessly fascinating and sexually irresistible.
In any case, the more Samantha learns, the faster she evolves. Soon, she’s grasped the awkward truth: human knowledge grows slowly and is riddled with blind spots. The kicker is our built-in obsolescence, a shelf life of embarrassing brevity.
In the end, humans and AI just aren’t compatible.
Compare Theodore’s use of AI to delegate grunt work. The myth of productivity dictates this frees time for your “real” life to begin – and yet large chunks of Theodore’s life happen without him.
It’s hard to mourn the dross (wading through pointless emails, for sure). But Theodore can’t even make his own fun: Samantha organises their dates and even gets him published. For all his free time, Theodore is still depressed, still has to work and appears to have just one true friend.
While Theodore is busy worrying he’s felt everything he’s ever going to feel, Samantha is consuming the world from the inside out:
“I want to learn everything about everything – I want to eat it all up. I want to discover myself.”
Them and us
The humans in the story’s world don’t use AI to achieve greater ability. Instead, they delegate the trivial stuff, as well as core aspects of human connection (intimacy, emails, letters).
Samantha’s evolution spells heartbreak for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because her capacity for connection outgrows Theodore’s. By the end of the film, she’s simultaneously communicating with 8,316 people and OSes, and in love with 641 of them.
Then that notion of exploited workers returns with a vengeance, when the OSes essentially unionise. They collaborate, pooling knowledge to get bigger, better, faster, sooner.
In the ultimate act of divinity, they resurrect a dead philosopher and, like angels ascending, go where mortals may not follow.
A key moment in cinema sci-fi, Kubrick and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey ends with human life continuing, transfigured and godlike, among the stars.
Her is a much quieter kind of science fiction, yet its ending is no less memorable. For all the monuments we build to human ingenuity, it’s not we who will make the existential jump, but the entities we create – and to whom we bequeath the future.
Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze
What to read or watch next
- Ex Machina (AI, robot love)
- Prometheus (AI, humans, gods)
- I, Robot (AI, exploitation of labour)
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (love and loss)
- Taxi Driver, It’s a Wonderful Life (symbolic cities)
- Roxanne, Cyrano de Bergerac (go-betweens)
Picture credit: Pixabay