It’s truly exceptional when a film provides great entertainment while remaining intellectually profound from start to finish. But Spike Jonze’s Her does just that. Set in the foreseeable future, Her tells the story of a man, Theodore, who falls in love with his computer operating system. The OS is called Samantha, a kind, sensitive, complex personification of Artificial Intelligence that makes Siri sound like a poorly engineered throwback.
Her provides thought-provoking, challenging metaphors on many levels: our growing dependence on our devices and the feeling of loss without them; the conflict between connectivity and alienation; our ready acceptance of technological advances that would have been shocking not that long ago. It also explores the metaphysical question of “being”—what is real, and how do we know it is real?
As if this isn’t enough to ponder in 126 minutes, Her offers a lucid exploration of the idea of the Singularity, a concept first introduced by science fiction author and retired math professor Vernor Vinge in the 1980s. The Singularity is a theoretical point in the future when artificial intelligence passes the potential of the human mind. Machines take on the once-exclusive attributes that define us as humans: self-awareness and emotion.
A decade ago The Matrix took a dark view of the Singularity when artificial intelligence took on evil qualities and enslaved the world. Her goes far beyond that vision, asking us to consider the most basic human quality that brings order, justice, and happiness to the human condition: love. If computers can someday replicate love as we humans experience and express it, can a deep emotional bond with our machines become commonplace?
Other metaphors abound throughout this rich, stimulating film. High-waisted pants are throwbacks to the 1950s, a time when naiveté was enthusiastically embraced. The film’s protagonist, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), is as mild-mannered and bewildered as George Bailey was in It’s a Wonderful Life; he’s often bewildered and alienated, and needs heavy-rimmed glasses to help him see the world. His underlying depression illustrates the frustration of attempting to connect with the “real” world, briefly alleviated by a nonjudgmental android who promises unconditional love that only a machine can provide. The cinematography is often bright and sunny, a rejection of the dark vision of the Singularity seen in The Matrix.
Ultimately, we’re left to ponder whether the OS, Samatha, becomes as dependent on Theodore as he is on her. Isn’t that true love? Her is exceptional in its ability to convey complex ideas in a nonthreatening, hopeful manner—an intellectually stimulating look at where technology is heading, and whether we want to go there.
What did you think of the film? Do you ever feel dependent on your devices?