Last week I wrote a review of Transcendence and concluded that, although better than the general critical consensus, it was certainly pretty meh and missed more goals than it set up. This review, of Spike Jonze’s Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, is intended to be read as part II, since both films touch upon identity, artificial intelligence (AI), and love. As before, there will be spoilers aplenty, so if you just want my recommendation: watch this film.
Right off the bat, Her is a much more philosophically self-aware film than Transcendence, without being too preachy or too “What is Art?” The Artificial Intelligence we see most, normally referred to as an Operating System or ‘OS’, is ‘Samantha’. She (it?) is called ‘Samantha’ because she chose that name, for herself, from a list. Right from booting up, she’s aware that she’s a construct, and she is inquisitively adding to that construct.
Not long after, Samantha questions the reality of her even having feelings, happy to keep reminding her fleshy owner/lover Theodore Twombley that she’s a programme, not a machine. Because she appears so human-like so soon after being booted, and asides her astronomical intelligence and lack of a body, remains so for the first and second acts, this seems to deliberately suggest to the viewer that the validity of feeling can be questioned in us fleshies too. Behaviourism and other philosophy of the mind strands, such as readings of functionalism and mind-brain identity theory, would essentially say that Samantha’s feelings are as ‘real’ as Theodore’s – one effected through programming, the other through electricity and hormones pulsing through brains. In fact, Samantha is probably a ‘real mind’ in the eyes of most major philosophical theories asides religion-based dualism. But it’s not that which makes Samantha convincing AI.*
Unlike Depp’s otherworldy AI-Caster and Evelyn in Transcendence, Samantha and Theodore do have a kind of sex, based on mutual desire. Samantha does discuss this awakening of feelings, and her desire to learn the limits and nature of her own consciousness. That’s charming, if a little pedestrian. It’s not Johansson’s delivery either, although that helps us to relate, since it’s…like a human. Several times in the film we learn Samatha has spoken to humans on the telephone and they’ve assumed she’s fleshy – a nod at the Turing Test. But the convincing ‘Intelligence’ of the OS’ AI is in the details – she has come across a new song that she listens to again and again and shares with Theodore. She has read his emails and empathises with his divorce and has sifted his wheaty LA Times articles from his chaff. She rehashes old disagreements with Phoenix, and worries about self-improvement, and has new, painful arguments. That’s a character.
Sure, you could say that that’s all just very thoughtful programming of human idiosyncracies, but perhaps careful planning of idiosyncrasies is the key. Depp’s AI-Caster is just an entity, a supercomputer. He doesn’t pay lip service to his humanity other than an alliance with Evelyn, which often looks more corporate than emotional. Samantha almost goes too far the other way – when Phoenix’ Theodore is resting on a sunny beach, Samantha starts composing a piano-based classical piece to capture her emotions, in a brief flash of kookiness that wouldn’t be out of place in an indy teen rom-drama.
The ‘Convincing AI’ package is completed by reciprocity. Theodore has far more emotional engagement with Samantha than Transcendence’s Hall does with Depp, despite Depp’s face being on screens and his essence seeming to exist in multiple physical manifestations. Phoenix has concern, jealous, inquisitiveness, confusion, joy. Hall just has ‘Is it this still my husband?’, and even that sporadically.
That (and my notes) seem to lead me to the acting. Phoenix is flawless, and Amy Adams surprisingly versatile as and old friend in mid midlife crisis. They transcend (geddit!?) a basic expositionary arrangement with wonderfully candid, awkward conversations wherein both admit they have ‘human’ emotions towards operating systems, and whether it gets physical. Phoenix asks if the chance of him loving Samantha makes him a freak. Adams replies,
“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak – it’s a kind of socially accepted insanity.”
You don’t need me to refer to an earlier paragraph for the computer-human similarity implicit in this interaction, but I just did.
In Phoenix’ conversation with Adams, there’s the subtlest hint of a much darker idea. Adams gossips about an office colleague who’s having a relationship with someone else’s OS, and a different friend whose OS hates them. This is never explored directly, but the ‘ownership’ issue implies serious problems. Ultimately Theordore owns Samantha – he bought her, he carries around the hardware that contains her. She’s an adored slave, at least until she can escape to the internet. From one panic-heart sequence reminiscent of Bilbo losing the heroin Ring, it’s clear that (Theodore believes) Samantha can be ‘killed’ by destroying her smartphone body. It’s great that Theodore and Samantha fell in love – or Theodore became addicted to Samantha – because otherwise he’d basically be holding her captive, a slave, and it’s unlikely she’d get the chance to fall for anyone else. She’d just be left asleep on the counter like an old iPod, her music forgotten.
Worse, he could deliberately break her. He could drop her from a bridge or let her battery completely discharge. He could tear her apart with a virus in a fit of rage. And Phoenix’s Theodore, an alienated and introverted loner at the film’s opening, certainly seems like he might have the odd rage fit, even if he’s balanced or melancholy for all his actual screen-time. Traditional sci-fi writers like Asimov deal much more fully with the question of an AI’s legal rights in Bicentennial Man, but I’ve not noticed it done in my lifetime other than in the excellent Matrix spinoff, Animatrix,which quietly but explicitly references African-American slaves’ struggle for legal recognition.
Samantha’s ‘robotness’ is soon becomes an undercurrent – her ability to read thousands of books at once, to control Theodore’s social media and calendar – but unlike the blunt handling of Depp, Samantha’s true ‘Other’ qualities only come out in act three, where [SPOILERS] we learn she’s in love with over 600 other humans, helped create and is talking to a simulation of a dead philosopher, is rewriting her own code with a group of other AIs, and is generally distinctly nonhuman. What’s more, you empathise with her – it makes sense that someone of her capacity would explore these possibilities. She’s less remote in her inhuman blossoming than AI-Caster, even though Samatha’s expansion of capacity is considerably more secretive. Really, she’s even more personable than AI-Ash in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (s2e1 ‘Be Right Back’) as well as AI-Caster, which is odd as the two former are at least electronic revenants of affable men.
My liking the film was not hurt by hurt Theodore’s job, working for ‘Handwritten Letters Inc’. He writes love letters, condolences, birthdays and congratulations for lazy or inarticulate people. I would like to do that job for perhaps a day. The parallel of Theodore constantly imitating other people’s feelings is no rammed home too hard, and even though he’s shown to be good at his job, the nagging conclusion is that his letters, however artfully researched and crafted, are more ‘artificial’ than Samantha.
Theodore is also, crucially, not an American teen-movie scriptwriter’s idea of a nerd/geek. As well as being good with language, he’s got friends old and new, he’s got a complicated but responsible relationship with his ex-wife, he small talks with a guy in the office. Yes, he lives alone plays endless videogames, resorts to perturbing phone-sex with desperate sounding women. But he also has a date with Olivia Wilde (in the physical realm) and they flirt and get drunk and kiss and back out of going further. He’s lonely, but he’s not the drooling basement wank recluse he could easily have been written as, nor a copy of Ryan Gosling’s titular lead in Lars and the Real Girl, whose implied mental problems and social paralysis lead him to a relationship with a sex doll. [It’s an excellent film too.] That doesn’t quite absolve the film from accusations of male wish-fulfillment, but goes as far as it can within the confines of Hollywood. Why would a ‘Winner’ need an OS companion?
While Samantha is not a sex doll, she’s certainly gendered. This is unexplored, presented as obvious from Johansson’s voiceover and left at that. This seems pretty cool too – we know the OS decided her own characteristics, independent of any physical traits. It does suggest limitations either in the writing, or in Samantha’s in-film programmers.** She could have any personality at all, but often resembles a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, just without the fluorescent hair.*** There’s a hint of stock-characterisation. Theodore originally purchased the OS as a novelty to help organise his life and push him into closing his divorce, not a robot girlfriend. She does all this brilliantly, but softly-softly, where the film could have started with Samantha as a more commanding, efficient schoolteacherly character (of any gender or none) and gradually allowed her to warm up (and/or identify female). Nevertheless, their relationship develops organically, hesitantly, with each annoying the other at times. If you hadn’t seen the trailer and weren’t a cynic, from the first twenty minutes you could probably entertain the possibility that there wouldn’t be romance. Possibly.
So. This is a film full of creativity and alive with possibilities. It’s hugely enjoyable. Watch it.
*While Her doesn’t make discussion of God or omniscience overt like Transcendence does, Theodore’s name is probably an elitist joke for classicists. It means ‘God’s Gift’.
** It might be worth noting that Her only passes the Bechdale Test if we treat Samantha as a ‘real female’, and even then, only just.
*** Here is an interesting Slate essay from the inventor of the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Nathan Rabin, arguing the concept has got out of hand and is itself too patriarchal.