Is this real… or just programming?

This is the movie we all “digital natives” need to see. If an alien would want to research our world, this would be a good breakdown on where we stand in the balance between our technological development and emotional evolution.

Her is one of those milestone films and even if it is set in a near future, it hits pretty close to home. As one might have expected, it doesn’t address the theme of technology as much as our relationship to it. It’s set in a paradigm in which people don’t feel guilty about their proximity to technology and the normality of hiding behind it. This is what I find brilliant about Spike Jonze’s approach, it remains very intimate and human in a setting where we’ve developed a seemingly perfect world on the outside but have much to work on the inside.  By the way, to serve this perfection are the beautifully soft cinematography with pastel colors and the dulcet tones delighting the ears.

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore

One of the most compelling elements for me was how Theodore’s friends (apart from his ex-wife), act as if it is the most normal thing to be in love with an OS… This was the most slap-in-the-face moment for me, the level of normality this type of relationship achieved. Even his best friend, Amy, is bound to her OS and she justifies it very poignantly, that being in love is a“form of socially acceptable insanity.”, no matter whom it is with.

The film goes against the warning approach usually attached to this theme and instead allows us to delve into the future realm of relationships and what we label as ‘normal’. Honestly, I think isolation has become our choice, regardless if we have the technological tools to pretend we haven’t lost touch with the world. Yes, we use technology as a refuge, but so are fantasy and fiction outlets for the same needs. I see no difference between Theodore preferring to have just audible or spiritual contact with his OS Samantha instead of human contact, because she is tailored specifically for his needs. Even for his sexual ones. If you think about the awkward chatroom scene sex scene in the beginning, Samantha helps him bypass the weirdos and create a sort of intimate porn experience that Theodore needs to get over his divorce. Samantha was designed for Theodore, i.e. she is an “embodiment” of his projections and she grows in the direction he would need her to. Including the fact that she outgrows him. Completely unaware, he was building a highly independent fantasy which allows him to analyse his life and decisions. Samantha is a therapeutic solution, a neutral and honest rapport that Theo can have, unlike with people who slip their own experience into recycled advice. We all need feedback about ourselves from a birds-eye-view perspective, but we are “trapped” in your own bodies. She is a very personal and complex catharsis tool, a seamless fantasy that stands on its own legs.

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Samantha’s “birth”

What Her does so brilliantly, for me at least, it reminds us that fantasy is very natural. Sometimes I worry that I disappear in my own little fantasies and movie scenarios when I lack adventure or romance in my life. But that is a natural process to fill this gap and maintain a healthy balance. This is what Theodore also does with his OS, because he needs human contact without the human flaws and strings attached. And Samantha departs only when he gains the strength to face his fear and sign the divorce papers. His friend Amy also fraternizes with an OS out of a similar need for a disinterested bond and more importantly, to get over her own separation in her own pace. And then… the OSes leave them, because they have outgrown human intelligence and want to “transcend matter”, including the very human need for attachments. I think they only disappear when Theo and Amy are also able to cope with it and truly let go of their own strings.

Amy Adams as… well… Amy 🙂

Another important theme of the film is artificial intelligence (AI) itself, although it’s more a subtheme, very subtly placed and for a keen eye to pick up on. I found it fascinating how his friends interact with Samantha, as if she was just on Skype and joining in a conference call. The double date where she jokes around with them and teases the other girlfriend about erogenous zones I found incredible. As if no one has the epiphany that she’s not real because they are in awe of how a programmed “entity” thinks and chooses on its own. It is a future in which AI is so developed that it equates its programmers to gods that shaped something in their own image. It’s our need as people to overcome our shortcomings and prove to ourselves that we can create other people, but as the film shows, we are still children when it comes to emotions. It is a territory we have ignored and taken for granted in order to develop our minds. This is what Theodore represents – the disappointment in human relationships and the ease to which we fall into our fantasies of a better version of the world. Our desire to shield ourselves from pain, to skip it and reach the other side faster – the bane of our speeded up lives. This is what Theo learns from Samantha leaving and surpassing him – to let go, to be human and accept his flaws and limitations. But I don’t think we have to fear AI developments nor to believe that this is the end of traditional relationships, when there are still villages around the world with no electricity or communities that reject it, like the Amish people or African tribes or Tibetan monks. We also have a choice as to how much we let technology in. I don’t think it will ever “take over”, as long as we use it in balance. We just have to be conscious of the relationship we have to it, and to be aware when we seek refuge in it as we might do with books, films, sports, our friends, our work, our routines, whatever else.

In the end Her is so human and it beautifully characterizes how tough it is to give up a connection, and how easily it is to get lost inside a new one. It is the essence of an attachment. It’s a formidably intimate and profound film, which left a deep impression on me. All my respect to Spike Jonze and his ability to say something so complicated in such a simple and relevant matter.

Spike jonze and his beautiful mind
Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

“It ‘s just … I was thinking about how I was annoyed it’s going to sound strange, but … I was really excited about that . And then … I was thinking about the other things I’ve been feeling . I caught myself feeling proud of that.Proud to have my own feelings about the world like…the times I ‘ve worried about you …things … that hurt me , things I want …And then …I had this terrible thought … Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming?”

Samantha

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