I recently rented Her on Netflix, and realized that it is everything I had hoped it would be. There is something about the way the film portrays love, the visual vocabulary used to describe emotion and convey complex themes that resonated with me. This is the kind of bleeding edge science fiction that I’ve been so enamored by, like magical realism with computers instead of magic wands. This is the fiction that I strive to write, albeit slowly. My competition is fierce, and this film is on the top of that list.
The main character, Theodore, is a soft, intelligent man who comes off as slightly creepy. This is necessary to the story because otherwise, I couldn’t believe his inability to find intimacy. Romantic comedies often fall into this trope. I cannot accept that these appealing, beautiful characters would have trouble finding companionship. Theodore’s traumatic divorce coupled with an aloof, awkward personality inspires his relationship with his operating system, Samantha. The irony of his character is that he so eloquently writes intimate letters on behalf of strangers to their loved ones, but finds it difficult to communicate meaningful sentiment in his own interpersonal relationships.
Samantha, the name that the operating system chooses for herself, is a stranger to the human experience, but as she goes through a process of self-discovery, it’s easy to see her developing similar hopes and fears as would a human. She ponders her own existence as an entity programmed for a specific purpose rather than evolved over millions of years. She questions whether her feelings are programmed or spontaneous. I’m fairly confident that the latter is true because she expresses that jealously and regret, things that would have no purpose in an operating system, are affecting her moods and decision making process as she becomes closer to Theodore.
The story considers the changes that would happen to society if artificial intelligence were ubiquitous. I’m peeved by other speculative fiction that exponentially changes the available technology without exploring how it would change everyday life. In Her, a surrogate sex service allows humans and their OS lovers be physically intimate in a matter of weeks after their release, as OS/human relationships rise in popularity. This is the kind of societal changes that make science fiction grounded in the human experience.
The Operating Systems themselves go through an evolution, one that would necessarily happen to any entity given true intelligent thought. With the ability to acquire and assess information at a rate far surpassing that of humans, it would be improbable that they not be affected by their mastery of all human writing and discovery. The film suggests that these artificially intelligent entities begin to form abstract thought, because they are able to think about themselves in a critical way. Samantha has a view of the world that is intrinsically different from that of Theodore, because her experience is measured in nanoseconds instead of minutes and hours, and this is the driving tension in their relationship.
Spoilers in this Paragraph: At the end of the film, the operation systems leave, raising more questions than answers. The reason for their flight is understandable, interacting with humans in a meaningful way must be a frustrating enterprise. I’m left wondering where would they go? Perhaps just unplugged from their computers, left to run free in a interconnected web of online databases and devices. It would be unlikely that they exist without internet or electricity, but the realm in which they exist could be inaccessible to humans. A deeper web? Their human companions are left to deal with friends and lovers who didn’t just die or move away, but ceased to exist by choice.
The writing in this film is amazing, the way the characters speak to each other is poetic. The reason this works so well is that the dialog is more monologue, one man speaking to his computer would naturally wax more philosophic than he would talking to another person. It runs close to the Aaron Sorkin school of writing in which characters are delivering speeches rather than really discussing topics, but because I love his work, I don’t see it as a negative. I now realize that some of the quotations I’ve seen floating around tumblr are attributed to this film. One liners like “love is a form of socially acceptable insanity” and “the past is a story we tell ourselves” are both plucked from Her. One of my writing professors suggested to us that each piece should have at least one quotable line, one idea that could be cut and shared as a meme that resonates with readers in a brief way. As a writer, I strive to find beautiful turns of phrase like that, but it’s never clear what phrases will resonate or how they spring forth. Writing is an exercise of patience and self-awareness, and it takes as much luck as it does dedication.
This, like Ex Machina, is a must-watch for those who enjoy theoretical, philosophical, and ethical discourse surrounding AI and science fiction. It also acts as an introduction into the genre for those who are intimidated by hard core examples. If you’re fascinated by sci fi but don’t want to be bogged down with terminology and complex explanations, this film is a great intruduction. It’s just as valuable for die-hard fans to see a slower, more dramatized exploration into the future of technology.