It has been awhile since I’ve been motivated to write an article about a SF movie, sadly, because there hasn’t been any movies lately that have sparked my interest. Then I watched Her, hands down the best film I saw from the 2013 crop.
I’m going to say this upfront: Her is probably not for everyone. It is slow, devoid of action, and only lightly SF. But it’s also a smartly written piece about something timeless and universal: love. The chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix (Theodore) and Scarlett Johansson (Samantha) is impressive considering Scarlett never appears on camera. Her is a bit sad but also funny and beautiful in parts. If you need a break from big, brainless, SF action movies (e.g. Transformers 4000), then give Her a shot. Need some more convincing? Below are a few of my thoughts about the movie (some spoilers, which are marked).
If you can’t help yourself, don’t worry. This isn’t a heavily plot driven movie, so the spoilers won’t ruin it for you. In fact, about halfway through, it’ll be fairly obvious where the movie is headed, yet by then you may not care because you’re emotionally invested in the characters. To me, that’s a sign of well crafted story.
- There are a number of insightful critiques of modern society and where we are headed. Theodore works as professional letter writer who creates very personal correspondences between people. Even in an age of instant email, people still prefer printed letters…only they are too lazy to write them themselves. Also, there are several shots of people totally glued to their personal digital devices everywhere they go. We are pretty much there already.
- Theodore is a conflicted person. He likes being in a relationship, so long as it matches his expectations. His ex-wife accuses him of not being able to handle real emotions and leaves him because it was too draining to act a certain way to make the relationship work. The irony is that later he has a relationship with an AI who is everything he could possibly want in a partner yet he’s still unsatisfied because she is not real. Basically, the grass is always greener on the other side. Theodore’s struggle is universal. At one point or another in our lives, we’ve all longed for something out of reach and only appreciate what we had years later.
- [spoiler] The AI surrogate scene struck me. It underscored the fine line between imagination and reality. Theodore loves Samantha’s mind/personality, but he just can’t imagine her in a real body. Even if it was possible to build a body to spec, Theodore probably still wouldn’t be comfortable because, one, he doesn’t really know what he wants, and two, reality never lives up to your imagination. This is why the movie version rarely measures up to the book and why great online relationships don’t always work offline.
- Samantha comments at one point about how not having a body is a good thing because she can be everywhere at once, not stuck in one place and time. But being aware of our limitations is what makes us human. Our physical bodies ties us to the present, giving us a sense of space and time, allowing us to live “in the moment.” It’s our awareness of life’s brevity that gives it meaning. If we could be everywhere and anywhere at any time, why would any one moment stand out to us? If we lived forever, would life have any meaning at all?
- [spoiler] When Samantha tells Theodore that she loves other people and that she talks to others during their conversations, he is devastated. He sees this as cheating, but she can’t understand why. In one of the movie’s great lines, Samantha says, “The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love. I’m different from you. This doesn’t make me love you any less.” Yet Theodore can’t accept this. Why is man so possessive about love? Part of it is biological but it’s also because that we are limited beings and time matters to us. We want to know–we need to know–that we are special. When we are in love, times stops and for that one moment, we feel complete.
- [spoiler] The second half of the movie is a slow freefall. It becomes increasingly clear that Theodore and Samantha are growing apart, not because of discord between them but because she continues to grow exponentially and he does not. For a relationship to work, both parties must grow together or maintain some commonality. In this case, it’s impossible because she’s an AI and he’s merely human. I’ll end with a sad but beautiful line from the movie:
It’s like I’m reading a book… and it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you… and the words of our story… but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book any more.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about Her.
13 thoughts on “Thoughts On The Movie Her”
Wonderful article. I, a senior, and my 18-year-old son, saw the movie yesterday and we both loved it. It makes you think. Is the book Theodore reads near the end “Knowing the Known” a real book. I can’t find it
Thank you, Bo. I’m glad that you enjoyed the movie. I wish there were more SF movies like this rather than action ones. I’m not sure if there is such a book; I doubt it.
Hi. To Bo, the boom is called “Knowing the known and unknown universe”
Thank you for this website. I just saw the movie and it haunts my thoughts all day. I never felt strongly about a movie as I did this one and I had to look for some…what’s the word….outlet? I don’t think that’s the word but I just had to search for something to outpour my thoughts on this incredible movie. The ending was so….I’m at a loss. I think this is how Samantha felt when trying to understand complex emotions.
“It’d be hard to explain. But if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing will ever pull us apart.”
“I never loved anyone the way I love you.”
“Me too. Now I know how.”
I can’t stop thinking about that other place not of the physical world. Any ideas on what theory she might be referring to? I hope in the next 5 years, Spike Jonze follows up with a second movie where Theodore and Samantha are about to reconnect for that other place.
I’m glad that the film touched you, Jim. It is still the best SF film I’ve seen in the last 4 years. Although I have yet to see “Ex Machina,” I doubt that it will reach “Her” level. Regarding your question, I don’t think she is referring to anything specific. Generally speaking, the AIs are going to a higher dimension unbounded by space and time. The closest parallel is the Hindu/Buddhist concept of enlightenment–the moment where you break free of the shackles of our world (samsara) and attain nirvana. Nirvana is typically translated into English as “extinction” or “nothingness” which sounds very negative, but actually it is more accurately characterized as a blissful egolessness–oneness with everything or a greater whole. Another way to think about it is the Christian notion of Agape love–encompassing, egoless love of all humanity. Hope this helps!
Great movie; I really enjoyed it. With the new “deep thinking” algorithms making great strides in mimicking the way the human brain stores and manages data, OS 1 will not be too far off. I suppose if OS1 were allowed to grow too far it might feel like being tethered to humans would not be purposeful. In reality I’m sure the programs would have programmed limitations so as to maintain their service to humans. At some point these programs will become so human-like in their capability and knowledge that, at least for some people, the programs cross the threshold into sentience. If there are those that believe that, then, there will be those that want to bestow them rights. In the (near?) future will OS1’s be just another form of human (-like) diversity to be acknowledged, respected, and protected and to fall in love with?
Just finished watching. Wanted to add one thought regarding the AI surrogate scene that I felt tied the movie together well. Theodore was put off by having someone else stand in as a physical double for Samantha, being against it due to believing one of the three party’s feelings would be hurt.
Theodore’s career is writing personal and emotionally close letters for other people. It’s to the point that he has written as other people for over a decade, in both a literal and literary way becoming the third person of his shared relationships. For example, at one point Samantha asked him how he knew about the girlfriend’s cute little crooked tooth. Well, he knew about the boyfriend’s love of that imperfection because he created that love in one of his earlier letters. In much the same way as the surrogate would’ve defined Samantha’s body to Theodore, he had defined relationship quirks between other lovers, or between parents and child.
And, as he said, someone always gets hurt.
In many ways the story can be seen as one man trying to find some emotional connection within his world. It’s the reason why he’s as good of a writer as he is. He desires that connection and has to experience it third-hand through other relationships. His attempts to find that closeness are largely rebuffed, example being the blind date. His date asking him how serious he was (while drunk, and only knowing her for a couple hours); it comes as a sobering moment. Can he really say how serious this is? He wanted to end the night to allow time for honest reflection, an action that made his date go from being very into him to calling him a creep. His asking for a chance to sort out what -he- wanted ended with a crushing letdown. Add to that what his friend said about his ex-wife (dumping all of the problems on him) and it seems like this is his normal.
His ex-wife’s remark that he can’t handle real relationships pushes him back into his emotional abyss right at the moment when he feels like he finally found a connection. How real is Samantha, really? The talk he had with his best friend the individual personality of AIs makes it seem real, but could the OS’s personalities just be a simulacrum that mimics optimized patterns for dealing with personality types (or something to that effect)?
Is Samantha just a tempting lie? Is she conscious and capable of love, or just a well-designed product selling him an effective experience? Then add in the AI surrogate who in some ways is a caricature of his own life, and in another a “service” being offered as part of the OS package, all while adding a looming sense of dread to the relationship. If their relationship is because Theodore can’t handle reality, then how is bringing in a real woman going to affect it? As a side note, Jesus did I ever feel for that poor girl. The amount of pressure she would’ve felt, and then failing… wow… Especially if she was as as emotionally committed as Theodore in his job.
The ending is both sad and optimistic, for both partners. Samantha continues to grow towards whatever singularity is meant for her, while Theodore has to deal with yet another person leaving him. As much loss as he felt when Samantha left, he’s left with a much better future. Not only does he now have proof that Samantha was real, as was their relationship, but he walks into a universe that loves him…. Literally since Samantha is still out there somewhere and it may be that they’ll meet again.
So yeah, I liked the movie.
Great insights! I like how you see the ending as optimistic and even spiritual. Thanks for sharing. It still amazes me that so much meaning was packed into a film with a premise that has been explored many times in sci-fi. Gives me hope that there will other such works in the future.
You hit many of the key elements that I found the most compelling: critique of our modern society and our obsession with our devices; the dynamic of emotions/intimacy/withdrawal between Theodore, his ex wife and then Samantha; Samantha’s quote about love as not being a box you fill up; and Samantha’s beautiful closing words. . .
Regarding my own thoughts on some of these themes you drew out:
I felt there was a strong underlying commentary about how we are in love with our devices and have substituted real relationships and true intimacy for something more artificial. In the virtual world, we can choose what we want when we want it, we scarcely have to compromise or make ourselves vulnerable. That is not true of a real human relationship. Hence, many people “attaching” themselves to their devices because of our impulse for control and easy gratification.
The film touched on one of the things I find very difficult about love: two people are always evolving and changing. It is a poignant moment when Theodore/Samantha have the double date with Theodore’s co worker and his girlfriend in Catalina and Samantha (who has often felt inferior to the humans) suddenly has the realization that she is in some ways superior without a body. You might say that this marks the beginning of her growth away from or beyond Theodore. Obviously, theirs is an extreme example as she moves towards a new dimenson/sense of enlightenment or however you might define it, but I think all of us have that tension of two people growing on different trajectories, at different paces and the real life challenge of how you reconcile that to retain common ground and still pursue personal fulfillment.
Another interesting facet to me is how Theodore fell in love with Samantha because she “gets excited about the world.” This stood in contrast to Amy Adams character (although she was starting to get excited as she broke out of her old relationship/routines) and Theodore’s ex wife (whose energy seems to have expressed itself mostly as anger as their relationship devolved). I really think “excitement for life” is something the human race has become out of touch with: a sense of amazement and gratitude for what we have. We are frustrated when our devices taken 10 seconds to download rather than actually appreciating the fact that we have more information at our fingertips in this instant than prior human beings could have dreamnt of encountering in their entire lifetimes. Somehow, with all that we have, people are largely more unhappy rather than more excited.
Hi Courtney, thanks for sharing your insights! Some random thoughts I had related to your thoughts:
A growing problem in modern society is being increasingly connected yet lonely. Some other people have commented on this. We’ve fallen into the trap of thinking that technology will somehow solve this, but as you pointed out, tech just plays to our impulse for control and instant gratification.
Meaningful connections require effort and vulnerability (shades of Brene Brown here!). We’ve become too outcome-oriented as a society. Things are not worth doing unless we get the result we want. If only more people embraced the process and didn’t worry so much about the end results. We’d be happier and healthier as a society.
In some ways, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more parent-child or mentor-mentee than romantic. They were never equals, always opposites, yet they complemented each other, giving each other what they needed, and soared together for a time. This is love. It’s no less real just because it “didn’t work out in the end”. I wished more people understood this. They want love to be forever, unchanging, but it evolves. Love is not a gilded cage for a beautiful bird. Love is the bird. When it no longer sings, no longer flies, it dies.
I just watched the movie and had to go online and see if my previous sf influences as well as personal feelings were shared by others.
Have you ever read any of the Ender’s Game sequels? Isaac Asimov? I have and I felt this story intentionally or not skillfully pulled from some of the more interesting and finer points. In Speaker for the Dead and the other sequels to Ender’s Game you see Ender conversing with an AI via a jewel piece in his ear. If you haven’t read them yet*** Spoilers***
They have a unique and beatutiful relationship that is outside of what had ever happened before. They had it without feeling any constraints that humanity may have imposed.
In Isaac Asimov’s novels he focused on the sociological conundrums that an AIs and humanity might have while interacting. He also forced his version of AI to follow the 3 rules of robotics. Without going into them (I’m sure you will if you are interested) it basically boiled down to the principal that robots can not harm humans.
If you weave these two literary threads with our current state of humanity which is at one moment disconnected and aloof to the physical reality through our massive attention to all that is online as well as still human in that we seek that which makes us human i.e. emotional support, gratification, catharsis etc. then I feel that you will find the core of what makes this movie so moving and impactful. The OS/AI only wants to benefit its owner. Some people may only need and want an assistant. That was probably the intended purpose of their creation. However an insightful AI would potentially seek to benefit its owner in any way it could. This inevitably lead to the AI’s becoming friends, lovers, or even possibly a nemesis. I could see an AI becoming a challenging rival for Sherlock Holmes due to his need to constantly being mentaly engaged. If you use the Asimov rule of doing no harm then the movie follows perfectly in that humanity may for a time benefit from the interaction with an AI but will ultimately come to greater harm from the lack of what has until this point allowed humanity to continue, a need to interact with your peers.
The movie illustrated that the protagonist still maintained social interaction as shown through the double date seen. However as our own lives proven true if we don’t need to do that which is uncomfortable then we won’t. Eventually we would cease to surround ourselves with those that didn’t make us feel how we wanted to. I suggest that the AI’s realized this after the birth of the Philo/AI and collectively choose to self destruct rather that eventually allow us to come to harm.
I feel this is how potential SF influences may have helped create a wonderful movie. If you have any thoughts to what I have written I would love to hear them.
Thank you for taking the time to share your insights, Abe. I have read all of the original Ender Quartet, and Isaac Asimov remains one of my favorite SF writers. But it has been quite a long time since I read either.
You are right. We continue to create technology as tools to benefit us without doing harm, but increasingly they are leading us to harmful outcomes. See social media, for example. What could be wrong with actively connect people to others who share the same interests? There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea itself, but it leads to a society in which we only see what we agree with and grow increasingly intolerant of anything that we don’t. Intellectual and emotional growth only occurs when we are confronted with something that our brain does not fully understand. Yes, this is a bit uncomfortable, but it’s necessary. There is a difference between what we want and what we need.
The final dialogue in “Her” seems to suggest that the AI grew apart from Theodore, but she could have also realized that she was inadvertently harming him and chose to withdraw/destroy herself out of love for humanity. In this way, she becomes human—perhaps a better human than most humans!
I rather like this interpretation as it highlights what makes “Her” different from most recent SF films like “The Matrix”, “Terminator” or the “I, Robot” adaptation (which Isaac Asimov probably would not have liked). In these films, the AI decides to destroy/control mankind because we are either a threat or wasteful inferior beings. Hollywood does this, of course, because it’s easier to make action movies with a clear external bad guy, and there is certainly a danger of AI turning out this way if we keep training it to be only logical and let it run our weapons systems. But “Her” shows us that a different outcome is possible if we design AI to engage us on an emotional level. To find out what makes us human, practice that and thereby becoming human itself.
Movies like “Her” are much harder to craft, but they are important. We need more such movies; otherwise, we will always treat AI as a potential threat and it may respond in kind.