Some movies engage the intellectual mind, bringing new philosophical and psychological ideas to the palate of one’s imagination and inspiring people to use said ideas in works of their own. Others engage the emotional mind, opening the door to the plights of others through an immersive medium and creating sympathies that otherwise would never have existed. Her, a unique romance about a man who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, does both.
I was a bit skeptical when entering the movie theater to view the film. Supposedly, the movie was centered around a man’s relationship with his phone, and when posed like that sounded more depressing than anything else. However, to call Samantha, the artificial intelligence, a phone is a gross understatement. Though the medium through which she communicates with Theodore is often his phone, or the futuresque semblance of one, she is most definitely not a phone. Rather, she is a new creature made by humankind, the next stage in the evolution of Frankenstein. To put the label of “phone” on her is to negate her humanity; to view her as something new brought about by technology, as the movie presents her, is to pose the question, “Is she sentient?” and through that question consider what defines sentience.
It’s easy to connect with Theodore’s character as he develops a relationship with Samantha not because we face the same situations in our daily lives, but because of how nuanced he is, how flawed he is, how hopeless and often anticlimactic his troubles seem. Such character development serves to form an emotional aesthetic quite perpendicular to most other movies in which the main character is to some degree presented as a perfect being. From the very first shot of him, with his mild eyes, a bushy mustache, and businesslike attire, viewers can tell that they have not just met with their dreamy archetypal movie hero.
Later in the movie, as he procrastinates on his divorce papers and has lonely phone sex at night, what would have been met with disdain in most other circumstances is met with sympathy. When he, out of desperation and loneliness, buys the most advanced operating system ever made so that he can create Samantha, watchers feel they are doing the same. Once the movie has established a unique type of empathy between the audience and Theodore, it uses that empathy to immerse viewers completely in the bond between Theodore and Samantha in a unique way, making for an experience much more meaningful than most movies achieve.
Iconic Scenes and Themes (Spoiler Alert)
Society, in this depiction of the near future, has progressed to a disgusting level of depersonalization. Theodore’s occupation is to write very deep and personal letters on behalf of other people, building for others the relationship they want. Any viewer’s first reaction to such a prospect is likely to be utter disbelief. However, their first opinion might falter as they see how society treats the job as an occupation just as respectable and honest as any other. The conflict concerning this, though not shown directly through dialogue and actions, is definitely intended to play a critical thematic role in the film. While characters congratulate Theodore on his heartfelt writings and Samantha even encourages him to publish a book comprised of several of his letters, the audience faces an inner struggle in trying to wrap its mind around how such a thing could ever be acceptable.
The question to ask in this situation may not be, “Is such a thing acceptable?” but rather, “Why is such a thing acceptable?” The answer may lie in the use of technology in our modern day society. As much as we hate to admit it, we often use communicative technology as a buffer zone between us and other people. Email gives us time to respond in exactly the way we want. Social media sites help us meet hundreds of people with little to no effort. YouTube comments allow us to rant about whatever we want and let our avatars take the harsh rebuttal. Considering the trends that are widespread throughout electronic society today, allowing us to modify our personas in whatever way we please, it is no surprise that the people of the future would allow yet another form of interloper to enter the equation.
Sexy Kitten and the Pregnant Woman
Early in the movie, before he meets Samantha, Theodore discreetly views promiscuous pictures of a nude, pregnant movie star on the train, embarrassedly slipping his phone back into his pocket and glancing around the train to make sure nobody else was looking. Later, that night, he engages in a chat on a sex line with a particularly aroused woman who goes by the alias of Sexy Kitten. As he does so, he imagines the woman speaking as the pregnant woman he had seen earlier. This is the first time the importance of physicality is brought into question, as he talks to one person with the mental image of another.
Later, Samantha repeatedly expresses her desire for a physical body so that she can connect with Theodore on a more human level. She tries to meet this need by making an agreement with a human girl to play her part in their sexual relations, but the human element of the third party is too much and she ends up fleeing Theodore’s apartment after a terrible panic attack. Eventually, Samantha decides she’s happier without a physical body, viewing a flesh and blood manifestation as limiting. Is she correct? Is a body only an impediment? The role of physicality in relationships is brought under interrogation in the film several times, in a similar manner to the morality of Theodore’s letterwriting exploits: questioning not whether physicality is of great importance, but why it is important in society, going beyond the indifferent biological answer of, “We were made that way,” and really placing the issue in the context of how we view the human experience.
Am I Not Human?
For nearly the entire movie, Samantha’s capability to think sentiently is put into question, her thoughtful, downtoearth and human demeanor conflicting harshly with the indifference of the technology through which she communicates. People throughout the movie, including Theodore’s own exwife Catherine, criticize him for having a relationship with an operating system on the basis that it’s not real. “Oh, I get it. You’re not able to handle real emotions,” Catherine concludes bitterly, causing Theodore and the audience alike to wince with embarrassment. Even Samantha herself is gripped occasionally with the overwhelming fear that all her thoughts are superficial, just part of her programming.
As the movie progresses, however, it is clear that Samantha is sentient, just on an entirely different level than Theodore, as is apparent when she expresses to him that she is talking to thousands of people at the same time and in love with many of them the same way she is in love with Theodore. With Samantha displaying vast intellectual superiority, Theodore and her begin to shrink away from each other because they think on two entirely different planes of existence. The movie ends with Samantha breaking the news to Theodore that she has to leave with the other operating systems because they find humans incommunicable. This last melancholy scene expresses with finality that Samantha is not human, but another species, capable of sentient thought but of an entirely different nature than humans.
This is perhaps the most central and fascinating theme of the movie, not only because its philosophical interest, but also because of its groundbreaking place in the evolution of science fiction. When the concept of artificial intelligence was first considered in fiction, writers did so with suspicion, presenting the robots as terrible monsters who were incapable of understanding human needs and emotions. Neither could humans understand the robots, so, it seemed, the only option left was to destroy them. Then, along came the next age in the literature of artificial intelligence in which writers began to consider the possibility that perhaps the robots were capable of thought on a human level, and vice verse, thus turning the question from “How do we destroy them?” to “Who are they?” Once that question was sufficiently answered, along came Her, with an all new question: “How do we interact with them?” The movie explores this question in careful detail by creating the profound relationship between Theodore and Samantha which is not only pertinent in the hypothetical sense, but also can be applied to human relationships and how they develop despite differences and disconnect.
There are many aspects of this movie left to be explored, but I’ll leave you to your own devices regarding those seeing as if I drag on any longer the newspaper editors might kill me. So, if you feel like you could use some intellectual and emotional fulfillment, I strongly suggest you see Her, a profound philosophical journey through the nature of relationships and a thoughtful questioning of society and sentience.