Spike Jonze's new film gives us a glimpse of where technology is taking us.
Image by Courtney Nicholas
Spike Jonze’s Her is a story about the death of human love masked as a love story between a man, Theo (Joaquin Phoenix), and his sexy artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson’s voice). Theo works as a professional surrogate letter-writer, a profession that’s equal parts emotional detective, jaded but secretly hopeful voyeur, and empathetic poet. His specialty is the intimate love letter, so his letters give voice to the feelings for the couples that hire him. This service, one set in an unnamed metropolis in the near future (and was shot both in Los Angeles and Shanghai to give the grey and pastel Google-age sheen to the exteriors) provides a parallel for Theo’s eventual relationship with his OS, an ethereal and exponentially hyper-intelligent lover who says everything he wants to hear, just like Theo’s letters do for his clients. The central questions of the film are existential: What does it mean to be human? How do we define emotions? Can something digital, and programmed, have a personality? How valuable are our bodies in the dawning age of total digital immersion?
My former professor, N. Kathryn Hayles, author of How We Became Post-Human, during a class lecture about Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, a book that poses questions in line with those presented in Her, defined the new situation as follows: Before the computer age, humans defined their existence apropos to animals, i.e., what differentiates us from the beasts who live outside and don’t cook their food? Our superior intelligence, our tools and our souls, of course.
In the age of digital technology, however, we now define our collective nature as humans apropos to the computer, or at the very least technology in general. And this existential metamorphosis is still ongoing. It will only continue when we accept and fully come to terms with the fact that our tools are smarter than us and will continue to exponentially increase in their self-taught intelligence until either world peace is achieved and they help keep it that way, or, far more likely, the world is swallowed up in a pervasive “gray goo” propagated by self-replicating nano-robots. If we haven’t already, this is when we will truly start to define what it is to be human across entirely different lines. We have already started to resort to analog and digital categories as evaluators of the human condition: memory, bandwidth, selfies, texting, emailing, online surfing, etc.
In Her, the relationship between Samantha and Theo begins in the midst of a period of intense loneliness and depression following the divorce from his now ex-wife, played by Rooney Mara (who, you could say, resembles Sophia Coppola). On the surface level, the plot of the film can be read as Spike’s take on his own divorce, with his and Theo’s pivot to art and technology a palliative for the pain, a recourse that in modern times is as common as substance abuse, spending extra time with friends, obsessing over work, and eating lots of ice cream were in the past.
When Theo first meets Samantha, it seems that the highly intelligent, autodidactic operating system can provide Theo with everything he needs to overcome his loneliness—except for a body to hold and have intercourse with. This provides an opening for a queer reading of the film, where their relationship becomes a new kind of interaction, one incapable of being defined by bodily insertion holes because Samantha doesn’t have any; the only thing that orients her gender is the sound of her voice (a notably husky one) and her name, which she chooses because she likes the sound of it (a very post-modern assumption of a title based on affect rather than any kind of religious, familial, or national ties). So, Samantha is, by definition, a very queer thing. She is pure digitally, ethereal, and potent at the same time. It’s to Scarlett Johansson’s credit that she gives us a fully rounded character without the audience seeing her once. There isn’t even a volleyball called Wilson to fixate our attention on and give human attributes to. As a result, most of the time that, in a lesser movie, would’ve been spent with the camera providing cross-coverage between the two characters is spent looking at Joaquin Phoenix’s face. But we still get a strong sense of Samantha – we feel Samantha, she is a character. It is a rare movie that, if you think about it too deeply before watching, will not only meet your expectations but shatter any doubt that it can be pulled off, because it most certainly is pulled off to a T.
This feeling of another person that the audience experiences but does not see is exactly the situation that Theo is faced with in the film: If Samantha’s disembodied voice elicits emotions in him, then why shouldn’t he rush headlong into a full-blown romantic relationship with her? In many ways she is the direct opposite as well as the corollary to the devastated and confused lovers of the murdered and otherwise expired lovers of Lester Ballard, the necrophiliac principle character in Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God: In Lester’s case, he gets the body of an other without the troubling consciousness and questions that go along with it (his imagination infuses the corpses with consciousness), while in Her, Theo gets the extremely intelligent and charming consciousness of another without the body. This is the crux of Her, and it reveals an at-first “perfect” relationship that quickly becomes both chilling in its implications of intimacy with a non-human form, while also serving as a locus to study in order to understand the essence of human intimacy. Just what are we interacting with when we bond with one another? What is essential? What turns us on? And if a computer can provide the same emotional connections as a human, or at least foster the same emotions as a human counterpart, then what keeps the computer from being human? The lack of a body? Not really, because we can easily extrapolate from Her the possibilities of computers with fully formed human bodies – just look at the Terminator films.
There is a moment in Her when Samantha and Theo go through the typical break-up scenario that’s prevalent in most romantic comedies, a scene that has destroyed many a real-life couple, when one lover reveals how many lovers he or she has had (or in this case, currently has). But this usually hackneyed archetype is given new vitality because it now involves a non-human – much like Brokeback Mountain achieved much of its acclaim by using a traditional tragic love story that was invigorated by swapping the traditional gender preferences of the players. In Her, this scene reveals that Theo has expected Samantha to follow the human mores of fidelity, while she has had many lovers because she can. She is capable of giving her equal attention to thousands at once, and can grow from and connect to each relationship (which is perhaps a more advanced form of the relationship turbulence caused by social networking), so wouldn’t it be unfair if she were forced to limit the breadth of her love to one, small-minded human? Then there’s the shot that shows a bunch of people walking while engaged with their smart phones (or whatever they will be termed in the future). This was a powerfully sad image, because it showed how unnecessary the human being may be very soon – they were the slower, less intelligent earthbound components in relationships with their grand digital mothers like Samantha, who can keep them all adequately occupied at once. That is until the humans realise that they are not the one.