I’m a science fiction fan and I’m interested in AI. People who know these things about me were surprised that I hadn’t seen “Her,” a 2013 movie starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence who lives in his phone.
I finally did see “Her” recently. The reason I didn’t see it before, and did see it then, actually relates to the theme of the movie.
“Her” is not really a movie about AI. Like most AI movies, it’s really about humanity — what makes us human.
What makes us human, according to “Her,” is physical reality — having bodies that exist together at the same time and place and talk to each other, even if we’re not even touching. There is very little human-to-human contact in “Her,” and very little touching, and what touching there is — between Phoenix’s character Theodore and a blind date played by Olivia Wilde — is bizarre and unsatisfying and sad.
People in the world of “Her” are dehumanized in ways that are recognizable extrapolations of today. Before we meet the AI that Theodore falls in love with, we see Theodore at his job. He works alone, dictating to a computer. He’s a futuristic Cyrano, ghost-writing personal letters on behalf of clients to families and friends — love letters, thank-you letters from a grandmother to her grandchild. The letters are incredibly personal, authentic sounding, and fake. You wonder if the recipient knows the letters are ghost-written, and if they do know it, whether it bothers them.
Later, Theodore, still alone, goes home and gets into some phone sex with a stranger, which starts well, but quickly turns hilarious, unsatisfying, and weird.
Theodore already does most of his interactions intermediated by machines, which is something we’re already seeing today, in the real world, so it makes sense that he falls in love with Samantha, a consciousness that exists in the machine.
Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, makes a point several times that the difference between herself and a human person is that she, Samantha, doesn’t have a body. And that’s a big deal, leading to an ending that’s ambiguous and bittersweet.
Despite Samantha’s bodiless condition, it’s possible that she is more human than the human characters of “Her.” Just a thought.
There are all sorts of other things going on with “Her” that will probably pop into my head from time to time. What’s the significance of the relationship between Theodore’s co-worker and his lawyer girlfriend? What does the movie mean when Theodore says, several times, that he and his ex-wife grew up together? The scene with the sex surrogate is priceless.
And now I’ll tell you why I didn’t see “Her” until now: Julie didn’t want to see it. Movies and TV are something I almost exclusively watch with Julie, which means I almost always only see the movies and TV we both want to see. If I’m going to do something alone I’d rather it be something other than watching a TV show or movie.
I do watch TV and movies alone when Julie is out of town and I’m home alone. That’s rare: usually I’m the one who travels. But it happened recently. We went to visit Julie’s family in Columbus, and I returned home two days before Julie. Alone in the house, I watched “Her,” and talked with Julie over Apple Messages, and talked with my friends and family on the Internet, experiencing nearly two days of nothing but relationships mediated by machines.