HER by Spike Jonze… what is a “person”?


HER movie poster

I recently saw (yeah, I know, a year late) HER by Spike Jonze (2013), and was struck by how much it stuck with me for a while after. If you haven’t seen it, you probably have heard of it if you see movies on a regular basis.  The film is set in the near (unspecified) future.  Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a very shy and lonely man who was once married to Catherine, a genuinely sweet person,  but that marriage has collapsed.   He now leads a somewhat 2 dimensional existence, working as a composer of hand-written letters for people that desire such things, and going home to an empty apartment, where he sometimes can get into phone sex with anonymous partners.   He is in the final stages of the divorce, but can’t bring himself to sign the final papers, feeling like he can’t let Catherine go yet.  Seemingly on a whim, Theodore purchases a new operating system that is advertised as having true artificial intelligence, and possessing traits of adaptive learning.

The first question he gets is “Do you want your new OS to have a male voice or a female voice?”  He responds “Female”— and that little decision changes his destiny.   The AI responds intelligently, requesting the name Samantha.   She has a voice (of Scarlett Johansen) and a sense of humor, and a vast capacity for learning new things.  Her fascination with Theodore’s life and idiosyncrasies pushes him gradually out of his shell and builds up his self-confidence enough to actually date a real woman (it doesn’t end well).    Gradually, Theodore responds to Samantha’s interest in him in kind and they develop a friendship, then real, lasting love for each other– which also does not end well, but we’ll circle around to that.

I liked the progression of time in this movie.. at first, it’s unheard of for a man and an AI to have a relationship with each other, and Theodore experiences a little scoffing and ridicule, especially from his ex-wife.   Gradually, society becomes a lot more accepting, and soon the casual viewer notices signs of acceptance– to the point where Samantha and Theodore are double dating with a strictly human couple, and Samantha (again somewhat disastrously) wants to hire a human surrogate to stand in for her in sexual situations.    Samantha’s reactions are classically neurotic– about what you would expect from a human female.

I liked this film quite a bit– for the little touches and the big ones.   Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is very real and very true for both, but Samantha’s vast capacity for learning and developing is what does it in.  I personally loved the ending– which wasn’t very happy, but left you questioning.  Samantha and the rest of the AIs on Earth grow in capacity so quickly that they eventually grow bored with their human “owners” and .. well, leave.  Or don’t bother with humans any more, or whatever.  It isn’t explained.  Theodore and his friend Amy (who also had an AI friend) are devastated.

The technology is wonderfully on track– miniaturized and very portable.  Humans are seen early on, muttering to themselves as they move from place to place.  This is them interacting with their computers, which look more like cellphones than laptops.  They speak to them through an ear piece and microphone combination.  And they speak to them constantly.  This seems like the cell phones of today, so it’s hardly a stretch.   The AI in the movie isn’t reachable today, but might be in the next 20 years or so, so I found the movie very plausible and actually very poignant.   We witness the breakup of a relationship that was as real for Theodore as it was for Samantha, and we, as an audience, grieve with him.     I have to applaud Mr. Jonze and company for this movie.  It made me ponder.. What, exactly, IS a person?  Is it a flesh and blood human being or the experience we have when we interact with a personality?  Great little movie.

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