“I can feel the fear that you carry around and I wish there was something I could do to help you let go of it, because if you could, I don't think you'd feel so alone anymore.” Not the kind of wisdom we are used to hearing from our computers. But Samantha—the artificially intelligent leading lady voiced by Scarlett Johansson in Spike Jonze’s coming-of-age romance Her—bubbles with human warmth and empathy.
Nominated for Best Picture and highly acclaimed by critics, Her poses some important human questions for our digital age. In a slightly futuristic Los Angeles, technology makes life so easy that interpersonal relationships are an inconvenience. This is the context in which Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) watched his marriage fall apart. Alone and detached, he finds solace in the digital escapes of video games and phone sex when he can’t sleep—plagued by dreams of what he might have said or done to save his marriage.
As a last ditch attempt at connecting to the world, Theodore purchases a new highly intuitive artificially intelligent operating system called OS1, enticed by its promise to “listen to you, understand you, and know you.” After just three questions—1. Are you social or anti-social? 2. Would you like your OS to have a male or female voice? 3. How would you describe your relationship with your mother?—Theodore was introduced to Samantha, and the love affair began.
“You alway wanted to have a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real.” Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) spits at him when she hears of his new romance. “I’m glad that you found someone. It’s perfect.”
Theodore’s romance with his sultry-voiced, artificially intelligent girlfriend, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), was perfect—she was, after all, designed for him. But more than that, Theodore grew to love Samantha because she seemed so human; she seemed vulnerable, sensitive, and intelligent, yet free from previous emotional baggage or wounds that burden every real person. Soon Theodore no longer cares if the relationship exists in the real world, it feels real enough for him.
It’s as if the film seems is asking us about our own digital relationships, and the nature of love itself. With our increased use of smartphones, social media, and digital technology, we are seeing an epidemic of loneliness as our virtual networks are getting broader and more shallow, according to a report by The Atlantic. It’s the turn from real relationships toward something of a new-age narcissism. A celebrity may feel connected to their Twitter followers, but in reality she’s experiencing the high of being the center of attention. A porn viewer may feel connected with the woman on the screen, but in reality he’s just feeling the high of having someone look at him with desire. Neither of these are real two-sided relationships, with giving and receiving on both sides. And any positive feelings they bring are self-serving for the person holding the digital device.
Interestingly, Yale University released research last week indicating that thoughts of selfless love actually deactivate the part of our brain that is self-serving. “The tranquility of this selfless love for others” the researchers explain, “is diametrically opposed to the anxiety caused by a lovers’ quarrel or extended separation. And it carries its own rewards.”
While the simulated relationship may train Theodore to go through the motions of a real relationship, it ultimately falls short. It isn’t healthy. Without experiencing human limitations, Samantha can’t offer Theodore the most important component to a loving relationship—the opportunity to struggle together.
This dilemma is foreshadowed in the film Her when Theodore’s obnoxiously attentive neighbor, Charles (Matt Letscher), explains how best to consume fruit.
Theodore runs into Charles and his wife Amy (Amy Adams) in an elevator, holding a fruit smoothie. “Don’t you know what people say? You have got to eat your fruit and juice your vegetables,” admonishes Charles. “By juicing the fruit you lose all the fibers—that's what your body wants, that's the important part—otherwise it’s just sugar.”
And what are the fibers of a human relationship? Communication and union, both physical and emotional. Sure, technology can be the training ground or facilitator for human relationships, but it can never really take its place.
Image via Hollywood Reporter