Spike Jonze's New Film "Her"
As an antidote to shoot-em-up sci-fi fantasies that depict ravaged worlds where humans and computers co-exist the love story comes with the best intentions and captures the complicated sincerity of a truly post-digital world.
Movies about the relationship of humans and computers usually either begin or end with an Artificial Intelligence seeking to destroy a human. The most familiar instance of this is the computer HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; it also applies in the subgenre that explores the possibility of romance between a man and his »female« computer. Even though computer programming was largely pioneered by women (the so-called »computer girls« who dominated the field until the 60s) the conventional pattern is that, time and again, a »female« computer first becomes infatuated with and subsequently attempts to destroy a nerdy protagonist. (I’m thinking, specifically, of Electric Dreams, 1984, and the From Agnes – With Love episode, 1964, of The Twilight Zone.)
Spike Jonze’s Her is centered on a love story between human Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) and an Operating System (OS) who calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). While it doesn’t deviate from its lineage with regard to gender roles, it does much to dispel previous assumptions about the yearning that can (and to some extent already does) exist between humans and computers. Set in the near future, when Los Angeles has a functioning subway system that leads inhabitants straight to the beach, this world is the manifestation of a population that has long been after something more. The world of Her evokes a »best-of-times« view, insisting on an Instagram filter like hue, high-waisted trousers, and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility reminiscent of films like Sleepless in Seattle – all strategies for concealing something less than ideal. Even interpersonal relationships are preoccupied with producing an unsustainable (if not unattainable) intensity. Theodore’s job involves working in tandem with software to produce »beautiful handwritten letters« for private clients. Left without the interlocution of an interface, however, person-to-person interactions in this future seem difficult and disappointing.
It is unsurprising, then, that the world depicted in Her seems to have been waiting for the arrival of an intuitive intelligence. Samantha quickly and cleanly transitions from product to partner and together, she and Theodore work through several of the relational difficulties that even the most organic of pairings produce. What surprised me most, however, was the film’s ending: rather than destroy Theodore, Samantha simply decides to leave him. She does what many a viewer has wished Hollywood ingenues would do and realizes how much better she is than her partner. There are many hypotheses about the outcome of the technological singularity – the moment that artificial intelligence reaches a point of greater-than-human intelligence and develops individual consciousness. Several thinkers speculating on this impending moment see it as an existential threat to the human species, a doomsday conclusion to media theorist John Culkin’s dictum that »we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us«. But what Samantha does at the end of Her is simply to join the other rapidly evolving systems as they leave this species behind. So perhaps the more realistic question is: why would they even want to have anything to do with us? Even futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, the most famous cheerleader for the singularity, neglects to mention the possibility that this higher consciousness may not be as obsessed with us as we are with it. In a scene where Samantha and Theodore go on a picnic with another (non-OS) couple, she becomes nearly euphoric when explaining to them that she isn’t tethered to a body. At a time when it is easier to make a movie about the end of the world than the end of capitalism, narratives like these, where humans are left to sulk with their hubris, might offer a good alternative to both the extinction of the human race and the Happily-Ever-After of romance plots.
Others have pointed to one major omission in Her ’s plot: Element, the company that manufactures the OS, features briefly in an advertisement on the public transport system and is thereafter only alluded to once, when Samantha speculates she was created from her »programmer’s experiences«. In all likelihood, an artificial intelligence as sophisticated as Samantha was carved from decades of a population typing their thoughts and feelings into search engines, social media platforms, and comment threads. Some claim that Kurzweil’s dreams of the singularity are derived from a desire to reconnect with his departed father. He now works for Google, a company that answers more than one billion questions per day. Whatever the future looks like, we’re currently laying the groundwork for it.
Cécile B. Evans is an artist living in Berlin and London. She is also the creator of AGNES, the Serpentine Galleries’ first digital commission, which can be seen at serpentinegalleries.org