Monday, February 17, 2014

Her and the Possibilities for Love in the Future

Spike Jonez’s Oscar-nominated new film, Her, portrays the anxiety of a culture which is increasingly reliant on technology, but also shows how this technology can be liberating and life-affirming.
by Grant Andrews

There is something inherently creepy about the idea of artificial intelligence. It plays into the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where the creation is something at once sympathetically human and vulnerable, as well as terrifyingly superhuman and able to harm us. What is striking about the masterful portrayal of Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha , the operating system which is able to learn and grow in Jonez’s film Her, is that as Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore falls in love with her, the audience falls in love with her too while always having a sense of awkwardness and dread about what their relationship implies. Is it a symptom of Theodore’s severe loneliness and possible depression? Is he unable to foster human connections, which we intuit are inherently more valuable than connecting with a computer? And does it again signify a master-servant dynamic, which could play into not only feminist readings, but also link to the uncomfortable idea that love might merely be about getting what we want from a partner, and have no otherworldly, poetic dimensions?

All of these questions make the film an ambivalent viewing experience. We cringe whenever Theodore admits that he is dating an operating system because we know that this undercuts the status which relationships offer in society. Being in a relationship is one of the markers of success, and when we tell someone that we are in a relationship, it not only signals our own happiness at having a loving partner, but also implies that we are worthy of being loved. Someone finds us attractive and lovable. For Theodore, this form of validation does not come, and we can identify when his wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara who delivers a spellbinding performance as one half of an idyllic romance gone wrong, seems outraged and incredulous when Theodore tells her about Samantha. We also never really want Theodore to admit that he is dating Samantha to Paul, his colleague played by Chris Pratt, or Amy, his friend and eventual companion played by Amy Adams, since it is an uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing admission.

At the same time, we are swept away by the romance of this love story, and we find ourselves connecting with Samantha. We know why Theodore loves her. For a character that is only brought to life through her voice and only seen through the devices by which Theodore accesses her, Samantha is a beautifully rounded character. Her naivety and inquisitiveness humanise her in the same way that these traits have done for all of our favourite artificial intelligences in film, from Wall-E to Haley Joel Osment’s David in A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It is fascinating to the audience how independent Samantha becomes, and this also allows us to develop respect for her. She does not solely rely on her “master” Theodore, the person who she was modelled to serve, but forges her own path and even develops relationships outside of the master-servant/lover dynamic on which the film is based. We enjoy seeing her put her foot in her mouth when she and Theodore are on a double date with Paul and his girlfriend, because this is something we have all done before. The music which she composes and her self-effacing sense of humour are endearing. Samantha, ultimately, becomes the most human character in the film.


Theodore also seems to genuinely love Samantha, and their relationship is believable. Their sex scene, perfectly rendered as only moans and exclamations of physical ecstasy on a black screen, is as sensual and visceral as we have witnessed in mainstream film. The montage of their brightly-rendered euphoric days together, their dates to the beach and trips around the city, and the bouts of jealousy from both parties play into familiar cues of the romance genre and also show us the complexity of their relationship. We have the lingering sense that Theodore is making a mistake, but as Amy says in the iconic line from the film: “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

This is powerfully contrasted with a very tumultuous blind date which Theodore goes on with Olivia Wilde’s Amelia. While the date initially seems to be going well, it is significant that both characters have to get very drunk in order to overcome their social awkwardness. There is also the discomfort of realising that they have different expectations, and that they might not have even really been that attracted to one another after all but were merely trying to satisfy particular needs. This is evident when Amelia accuses Theodore of being a very creepy guy. Dating a real person is shown to be hard, uncomfortable, and ultimately, for the most part, disappointing in the film.

It is significant that the film can be seen as social commentary about a modern world where technology is intrinsic to our everyday lives and where face-to-face connections are becoming increasingly rare. The average American spends more than four times the amount of time online per week than socialising with their friends in person. This creates very different ideas about the possibilities for love and connection in the modern world. We mostly connect with other people through the use of devices, and most of our time with these devices is spent without another human directly interacting with us at all. Essentially, we are socialising with our computers and phones more than with other people in society. Our devices are already being programmed to know who we are and to cater to our specific needs. We choose the apps we find most useful and let them organise our time, entertain us, educate us, and even make choices for us like what to eat and which people to date. It is not an extreme stretch to imagine that we will very soon consider these devices to genuinely be our friends.

But can they offer us love? As a culture, we want to value love. We want to believe in romance and happy endings. The romance genre is based on the insanity of love, where rational thinking leaves the equation and characters often choose partners who they initially seemed to despise. But Her subverts these familiar tropes by making Samantha already perfectly suited to Theodore’s desires. She was designed to be a perfect companion for him. Their love seems much more organic than in many other films in the romance genre. The love seems positively rational, if not for the fact that Samantha is not a real person.

The film seems to suggest that love between a human and artificial intelligence is ultimately not feasible for a number of reasons. Samantha cannot be contained by the form of love which Theodore seems to require, claiming that she has fallen in love with hundreds of others. This seems to suggest that monogamous, absolute love might be a purely human construct which artificial intelligences cannot adhere to. At the end of the film, Samantha also claims that she needs to leave to a place where Theodore cannot access, implying that she has evolved beyond the confines of her position as an operating system serving a master. Their love once again ends in disappointment, and Theodore is left to find comfort with the equally disillusioned Amy whose marriage has fallen apart and whose operating system has also abandoned her.

Whether or not these relationships will one day become common, the film reminds us that they are more and more likely to become possible at any time. It asks us to reassess our understanding of love and humanity, and to understand how technology might allow us to become more human. Samantha allows Theodore to truly consider why he acts the way he does in relationships, and this allows him to grow as a character. The devices which already define many aspects of our lives might eventually lead us to redefine love and to rediscover our own humanity.