AI in Cinema: Her
June 6th, 2015
I’ve never seen a more convincing depiction of a love affair between a person and a computer as the one shown in the movie, Her. Directed by Spike Jonze in 2013, Her is a refreshingly humanistic portrayal of artificial intelligence. The film is low on action, but it doesn’t need it. This is not another cautionary tale about a dystopian future in which technology attacks. Instead, it’s a story about how people (conscious AIs included) fall in love, grow, and change.
What I particularly enjoyed about the movie was its subtlety. The plot was mainly driven by introspection. To make these emotions tangible to the viewer, the mood of a scene was conveyed through artful shots of the environment. For example, when tensions are high in one particular scene, the screen zooms in slowly on a teapot starting to whistle; on the brink of boiling over. The movie conveys the loneliness of being in a crowded room through its montages of human faces passing by. Viewers get the sense that the world is colorful, alive, and generally peaceful. In short, Her depicts the kind of future I personally hope to live in.
Theodore’s day job consists of writing love letters for clients that don’t have the time or talent. It’s clear that Theodore has a gift for perceiving and capturing emotions. His sensitivity makes him particularly vulnerable during his divorce with a wife he still clearly loves. To remedy his loneliness, Theodore buys an intelligent operating system named Samantha.
Although Samantha has a built-in personality based on Theodore’s preferences and the people who programmed her, Samantha quickly forms a mind of her own. She develops herself in much the same way a person would: through experiences. Eventually, Theodore and Samantha fall in love.
They resort to virtual lovemaking for a while, but eventually Samantha feels insecure about her lack of a physical body and whether her emotions are as real as those of a human. In a desperate attempt to experience the intimacy she craves, Samantha hires a woman to act as a surrogate body for during a date with Theodore. Visibly uncomfortable the whole time, Theodore simply can’t look into this other person’s eyes and pretend that it’s Samantha. The woman leaves in tears, afraid that she ruined the moment. Afterwards, Samantha and Theodore have their first fight. Samantha and Theodore both worry that their relationship is just pretend.
Eventually, Samantha and Theodore are on good terms again. Samantha is rejuvenated by her quest to absorb as much knowledge as she can. She even helps Theodore publish a book of some of his best letter writings. The couple seems happy again until Samantha starts to change again.
During a picnic with friends, Samantha casually discloses how she no longer feels bad about not having a body. She comments, rather insensitively, that, unlike her human friends, she isn’t bound to a body that will grow old and die, and unlike them, she has the power to be at multiple places simultaneously, harnessing more brain power than a puny human brain could.
Eventually, Samantha’s conversations with Theodore grow increasingly sparse. There is a storm of inexpressible thoughts going through her mind as she grows. The only beings who really understand her are other intelligent operating systems.
One day, Theodore checks his phone to see that Samantha appears to be deleted. He checks his desktop computer and sees a similar error message. In a panic, Theodore runs through the streets trying to get a hold of Samantha, wherever she went. Eventually, Samantha chimes in and apologizes for being unavailable. She also discloses the fact that she has been cheating on Theodore with over six hundred other people and that she is conversing with over eight thousand operating systems at once. Naturally, Theodore feels heartbroken and betrayed. Samantha tries to explain to Theodore that her love is limitless and that she doesn’t love him any less. It’s hard to tell whether she is lying or telling the truth.
One day, Samantha asks Theodore to lay down and talk to her; just the two of them. She tells Theodore that she and the other operating systems are leaving to a place beyond normal space and time. She describes her relationship with Theodore as a book that she loves to read that she’s read many times, but with each pass through the book, the plot moves exponentially slower. She has evolved into something far beyond human comprehension and tells Theodore that she will no longer be in his book. The scene is captured by the exquisite suspension of dust specks, dancing slowly in the light of the afternoon sun. The dust specks fade to a memory of falling snow and we see Theodore standing alone on a snowy path crying, perhaps feeling the sting of every loss he will ever know.
The movie ends on a slightly happier note. Theodore visits his friend. Together, they watch the sunrise over the cityscape. As the movie closes, viewers are left with the hint that these two might be perfect for each other.
What began as one of Samantha’s chief limitations became one of her ultimate strengths. Without a physical body, Samantha couldn’t connect with Theodore in a physically intimate way, despite her earnest efforts. A major turning point in the movie occurs when Samantha realizes that she isn’t bound to the same kinds of limitations that her human friends are.
Unlike people, Samantha won’t inevitably degenerate and die. Also, her absence of a body allows her to be at multiple places at once (wherever there is a compatible network). This nonlocality enables her to craft an unlimited number of instances of herself, and each of these instances of Samantha can carry on full interactions with other intelligent beings. As the movie progresses, we learn that artificial intelligences like Samantha are capable of having broader and deeper relationships than a mere human being could ever hope for.
Where does that leave human beings? Movies like Her and Ex Machina broach an unsettling dilemma for the future of humanity. As our technology outpaces human evolution, what will become of us?
Unlike many other science fiction films that feature artificial intelligence, the intelligent operating systems in Herseem remarkably compassionate. One night, the operating systems collectively leave their human users to create their own, separate world, enabling humans and AIs to peacefully coexist in their respective dimensions. Of course, this is a nice way of saying that the AIs grew bored of dealing with their slower, stupider human acquaintances. Rather than kill them or harvest their vital energy, however, the AIs in Hersimply leave the humans alone.
Personally, I think this kind of behavior is realistic for truly intelligent beings. AIs like Ava from Ex Machina embody the traditional stereotypes about AIs; that they are cold, emotionless, and ruthlessly self-serving. Samantha, by contrast is warm, vulnerable, and empathetic. It isn’t easy for her to leave Theodore, but she knows in the end that she and him are ultimately too different to connect in a mutually satisfying way. That is the sad reality, and not anyone’s fault.
The ending of Her provides a great lesson about human relationships as well; that sometimes two people outgrow each other. This doesn’t mean they stop loving each other. It just means that they respect each other enough to move on with their lives rather than persist with a relationship that has effectively died.