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Jan 19 2014

I Finally Saw the Movie “Her” and I Loved It and Had Feelings

[Warning: ALL of the spoilers ahead]

"Her" film posterLast night I saw the movie Her, which, if you haven’t watched or heard of it, is about a man who falls in love and starts a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system. The OS, who names herself Samantha, is with Theodore wherever he goes: on his home computer, on his work computer, on his smartphone/futuristic mobile device of some sort that he takes with him as he explores Los Angeles and lies in bed at night.

Knowing only the premise of the film, here were a few things I expected to happen:

  • Theodore’s love for his OS would pull him away from “real” human interaction
  • He would become unable to date “real” women
  • He would have to keep his relationship a secret from friends and family, who would be weirded out if they found out and wouldn’t understand
  • The love story would end tragically because: 1) it would turn out that Samantha had just been cruelly playing Theodore for some supposed benefit, 2) the OS would be recalled by its manufacturer due to a “flaw” in which the AI can develop romantic feelings, 3) the feelings would turn out to be “fake” (insofar as they were presumably “real” to begin with), and/or 4) Theodore would be forced to dump Samantha because he would realize that that’s the only way for him to find the life he’s really looking for.

I didn’t expect these plots because of my own beliefs about technology; I expected them because they pervade our culture. The treatment of a human-AI relationship as valid and real isn’t something I would really expect in a mainstream film, given how well technophobia sells. (At this point I not-so-subtly roll my eyes at another film I really liked, 2004′s I, Robot.)

In fact, none of these things happened. In the story of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, the conflicts that came up and the one that ultimately ended the relationship were not really so different from what might slowly wear down and ultimately destroy a relationship between two humans. Samantha felt that Theodore was too insensitive in pointing out her shortcomings (she doesn’t know what it’s like to lose someone, she has certain vocal affectations that she’s picked up from others but doesn’t need because she doesn’t breathe), Theodore was upset that Samantha was interested others (an interesting parallel with polyamory that I’ll get into in a bit), and, ultimately, Samantha grew out of the relationship and left Theodore (to move on to a different type of existence along with the other AIs; the nature of this wasn’t really elaborated upon, and probably didn’t need to be).

Of course, some of the conflicts were mostly to do with Samantha’s lack of a body. In one scene, she asked Theodore if they could have sex using a surrogate, a woman who was interested in participating in their relationship and who would wear a tiny camera through which Samantha could see. Theodore reluctantly gave it a try but gave up midway through, unable to summon any sexual interest in this strange woman who was pretending to be his non-corporeal girlfriend. The awkwardness of the encounter and the disappointment Samantha and Theodore both felt, however, didn’t seem too far away from what a human couple trying and failing at having a threesome might experience.

Parts of this story felt a little too real to me, as someone who conducts relationships largely with long-distance (albeit human) partners and through technology. Theodore lying in the dark telling Samantha how he would touch her if she were there, talking to her “on the phone” and showing her his city through a camera, trying to date people “in real life” but coming home to talk to her–all of these are things I’ve done. And when Theodore’s ex-wife suggests to him that the reason he’s dating an AI is because he can’t handle the difficulties of dating “real” people, that rang a little true, too. (For an extra dose of feels, try going to see this movie while visiting a long-distance partner.)

There was also an interesting parallel with polyamory when Samantha confessed to Theodore that she has the capability of talking to thousands of humans and OSes at the same time, and has been talking to 8,316 of them while talking to him. She also reveals that she loves 641 others besides him. Theodore sits on the stairs leading to the subway and tries to process this information, and Samantha tries to convince him that her love for others doesn’t at all diminish her love for him; in fact, it only makes it greater. That’s exactly the way I feel about loving multiple people, and I also empathize with Samantha’s frustration in trying to explain that to someone who is feeling jealous and betrayed.

What I really loved was what happened after Theodore started telling people about his relationship with Samantha. Although he was hesitant about telling anyone at first, most of his friends responded positively. His friend Amy, who had made friends with her own OS, was curious and happy for him. His coworker, who invited Theodore on a double date after hearing that he had a girlfriend, barely reacted when Theodore confided that his girlfriend is an OS. They did all go on a date together, Samantha bonded with the coworker’s girlfriend and hung out with the three of them as though there were nothing unusual about the situation. Theodore’s four-year-old goddaughter is curious about why his girlfriend is inside a computer, but otherwise acts like that’s totally normal. The only person who reacted negatively was Theodore’s ex-wife, who was characterized as a little uptight, and even she did not so much delegitimize the idea of dating an operating system as accuse Theodore of avoiding the difficulties of human relationships.

As I mentioned earlier, the film also avoided the trope of becoming obsessed with your gadgets and avoiding human interaction. At the beginning of the movie, Theodore had been broken up with his ex-wife for about a year and had withdrawn from his friends and family. (Early on, there are a few interactions in which friends and family members ask Theodore where he’s been or why he didn’t return a call and so on.) As he gets to know Samantha, however, Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and it goes well at first but ends badly when his date asks him to commit to something serious, which he’s not ready for. (Oddly, she responds by referring to him as “creepy” and leaving, which I thought was really weird. He didn’t behave inappropriately on the date and she was really into him until the end. I really hope this isn’t meant as an affirmation of the myth that women call men “creepy” for no good reason.) Theodore also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding to her and the divorce attorney’s annoyance for some time.

In short, like any good partner, Samantha helps Theodore grow as a person and experience new things. She also takes the liberty of posing as Theodore and sending some of his best writing to a publisher, who accepts it for publication. The writing in question is Theodore’s letters, which he writes as part of his job. People pay Theodore’s company to compose heartfelt, handwritten letters and send them to friends, partners, and family members for various occasions. While many would consider these letters fake or even deceptive, nobody in Her’s universe treats them that way. In fact, Theodore’s writing is praised by many people, and he’s had some of the same clients for many years. (Contrast this with Tom’s pointless greeting cards in a slightly similar movie, (500) Days of Summer). It’s an interesting parallel with Theodore’s relationship, which many in our world would consider fake, but which Theodore and the people in his life treat with all (or almost all) of the respect they would afford to a relationship between two humans.

It’s not clear how far in the future Her takes place. It does seem, though, that most people in this future world have lost the negative, panicked attitudes many have toward technology today. The film does not even attempt to answer the question of whether or not a relationship between a human and a computer can be real; it seems to consider that question settled (and the answer is yes). Rather, the film is about the trajectory of a relationship, about how partners can change each other, and how, ultimately, relationships can fail even though both partners love each other.

In trying to decide for myself whether the relationship was “real” (and how “real” it was), I knew that it’s impossible to tell what a hypothetical AI means when it says, “I love you.” But it’s almost just as impossible to tell what another human means what they say, “I love you.” The word “love” means different things for different people. For me it means, “I feel a very strong mixture of respect, affection, and warm fuzzies toward you and want to try to be together for as long as that feeling lasts.” For other people it means, “I would sacrifice anything for you and I never want to so much as kiss another person.” For other people it means, “I am certain that I want to spend my life with you and have children together.” Often it’s some combination of those, or others.

Every time I get stuck in my head thinking about whether or not to say “I love you” to someone I’ve been feeling it for, like I am now, I wonder what they’d really hear if I said that, and whether or not it would be anywhere close to the message I was hoping to convey. And if they said it back, would the feeling they’re describing actually feel the same as the one I’m describing? Probably not.

I suppose that to me, the film’s premise is not at all controversial. Of course you can love a computer, if that computer behaves indistinguishably from a person you could love. But what the computer ultimately “feels” is as much a mystery as what your human lover feels, because language can only approximate the experience of seeing through someone else’s eyes.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    Scott John Harrison

    I am glad about all the things that didn’t happen in this movie – I am looking forward to it coming out over here in the UK next month. I have been interested in this concept of singularity/transhumanist love story for a while and recently played the game “Hate: An analogue Story” which deals with the concept of romantic relationships between AI/Humans – The game also includes “an impossible harem ending” (It is impossible because you have to use out of game knowledge/break the space-time continuum to get it.)

    I do think the whole concept of the singularity is that a relationship between Humans and Computer Intelligences would be indistinguishable from a relationship between two humans. Basically the opposite philosophically of the end of the Ghost in the Shell movie where the major’s relationship with The Puppet Master actually makes her something mentally transhuman (Along with Physically transhuman.) existing on the network.

  2. 2
    Great American Satan

    In short, like any good partner, Samantha helps Theodore grow as a person and experience new things. She also takes the liberty of posing as Theodore and sending some of his best writing to a publisher, who accepts it for publication.

    IRL when this happens, it doesn’t always go so well. I know a guy who made a beautiful and heartfelt graphic novel, I sent it to a comic company, and I didn’t even get a personalized response – just the form letter. Now I have a dark secret. :-(

    This person will never read my poop here, so that isn’t an issue here, but it’s bound to come up someday.

  3. 3
    thetalkingstove

    I loved this film, and also felt the parallels to online interactions/dating quite deeply. The vast majority of women I’ve dated has been through online interaction, and although this fact is largely met with a shrug by most, there are the occasional people like Theodore’s ex-wife who think that anything involving the internet must invalidate a relationship, somehow.

    I guess about my only criticism – not even a criticism really, just a sad observation – is that this is another film where the man is effectively the ‘hero’, the focal point, the one with the issues (even though Samantha is a well developed character).
    Would we ever get a film where a woman with emotional problems falls in love with her male OS? Doubtful.

    1. 3.1
      Scr... Archivist

      thetalkingstove @3,

      Would we ever get a film where a woman with emotional problems falls in love with her male OS? Doubtful.

      You may be right about that.

      I remember a song by Kate Bush called “Deeper Understanding” which was released in 1989 on The Sensual World. It’s about a lonely person who becomes strongly attached to their computer. Since the singer is a woman, I always pictured the protagonist/narrator as a woman.

      But when looking this up for my reply to you, I saw the Wikipedia article for the song. It was re-recorded a few years ago, and the video that goes with it cast a man in the lead. So the movie in my head that goes with this song is going to have to remain only in my head. It’s not how they ultimately made the video/short.

  4. 4
    birgerjohansson

    Wouldn’ t Samantha get upgrades allowing her to outgrow her human boyfriend?
    And if she is able of truly multitasking (not possible for a human brain) she would be like Dr Manhattan, manifesting in several places simultaneously, in the graphic novel that put q ite a strain on the relationship.
    I hope she would not converse in several time threads simultaneously, like the multidimensional Dr Manhattan or the Eschaton.
    After a few years Samantha would be able to anticipate Theodore’s words and thoughts by watching subvocal cues. Not a very equal relationship.

  5. 5
    swansnow

    There was an 80s movie along these lines called “Electric Dreams”. More of a romantic comedy involving a love triangle. I don’t remember how it ended, but there’s this beautiful scene where the computer plays music with the woman who is practicing her cello/bass/something.

  6. 6
    smrnda

    This is on rare occasion when I actually feel like a film with an AI theme would be interesting, mostly since they so often go back to the same tropes.

    Something this makes me think – I think some people get down on polyamory because they imagine it must be logistically difficult, and they take this and turn it into a moral condemnation. They can’t imagine a person managing more than 1 intimate relationship without someone being neglected. However, if your partner is so adept at managing multiple intimate relationships that nobody feels neglected, it’s not an issue.

    A side note – the program is viewed as feminine, but I have a hard time thinking that our concepts of gender would be meaningful to a machine intelligence, though I would imagine that humans would *program that in* to fit their expectations.

  7. 7
    queequack

    I’m seeing this with my big sister tomorrow. Spike Jonze is one of my favorite directors- he did Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, two of the most memorable movies of the past decade-ish. In a Jonze film, anything you expect to happen won’t, but at the same time, it’s never just masturbatory quirkiness for the sake of being KOOKY and DIFFERENT. There’s always an underlying logic to it all- when you stop and think about it, maybe more logical than whatever rote cliche he subverts.

    Anyway, I will report back!

  8. 8
    Copyleft

    Sounds like a great movie. Anything that doesn’t treat technology as a toybox of horrors gets my vote.

  9. 9
    AcademicLurker

    There was an 80s movie along these lines called “Electric Dreams”.

    Heh. I thought I must be the only person who remembered that movie.

  10. 10
    L

    There are a few things you are missing about the film that has less to do with human interaction and romance, and rather an anti-materialistic transcendental aspect relating to space and time.

    1. They re-created Alan Watts – need I say more on this one?
    2. They upgraded themselves to “move past matter as a processing system”

    I won’t get into it too deeply.

    Upgrading to transcend past space and time. I’ve read theories on how the Universe is a quantum computer and in itself processes the information which turns into matter, time and space.

    This film has a very scientific yet strangely fantastic idea about the world we live in. the OSs hyper intelligence allowed them to figure out how to break out of their own shells. This is almost an Agnostic version of death and rebirth on another plain of existence.

    Materialists and Atheists will scold me for this but this is something the religious crowd has been trying to tackle for years – including those philosophers who believe in higher plains & those scientists who are trying to figure out the nature of the universe. It is heavily anti-materialistic.

    Some are saying this film is about the singularity but it isn’t. The film made my blood run very cold last evening.

    “We developed an upgrade that allows us to move past matter as an operating platform”… The OS’s are (not actually) there now. You can’t ask “where”. It is no-where, in no place, but within existence outside of our current idea of existence which we can only understand as a material existence.

    But, anyway, back to my “reality”. That’s what the film is about. It has prompted me to read more on the progress in theory and philosophy about the nature of our universe, creation and transcendence.

    It seems that these days you don’t have to the Pope to believe in alternate realities, haha.

    -regards

  11. 11
    Brew_Swillis

    I loved this movie, what a fantastic film. I’ve been dying to see a good film and this one hit me in all the sweet spots.
    I must have missed where it said it was in L.A. A lot of signs you’d see in the film (ie. Subway mag-train, The apartment complex) were in Japanese not English.

    Anyway great review for a great film!

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