“I think anybody who falls in love is a freak.
It’s a crazy thing to do.
It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”
― Amy, Her (2013)
Throughout our entire short lifetime of watching movies or reading literature or listening to music, we will always find that one film or book or song that struck a chord so deep inside us, that it resonates profoundly through our entire being, changing our perspectives, and ultimately, changes us in its entirety. One such film that manages to do so (to me at least), is Spike Jones’ magnum opusfrom 2013, “Her”. It is a film that manages to do so much in such short time, it offers so much, it is moving, and it is wise.
In this poignant post-modern two hour science-fiction-romance movie, it tells a story, set in some not-so-distant future, of an introverted writer, who worked at a company that helps people who are unwilling to write personal letters themselves compose heartfelt and intimate letters towards their beloved others. Living a lonely life ever since his breakup with his childhood romance/wife, Theodore, the protagonist, decided to buy a newly designed talking operating system that is designed with artificial intelligence, making the OS able to talk and function like a “human-being”, in order to bear with the loneliness while having a companion.
After deciding to give the OS a female voice, and naming it Samantha in the process, Samantha surprises him by displaying high levels of intellect, showing significant sophistication in “her” computer processing levels, while demonstrating extraordinary capabilities in psychological growth through learning. And after a certain amount of closeness between the two, Theodore “naturally” falls in love with Samantha, and vice versa. Thus the story goes on. But first, let us suspend our skepticism towards the possibility and the ethical issues of developing AI in the near future, and instead consider the questions postulated below:
“Is Samantha a human?” Some might consider yes, since she displayed a high level of consciousness, even to the point of being able to discuss philosophical questions such as love and life, and she is shown in the film for being able to demonstrate empathy, and emotions, all of which are requirements in order to make us human. Samantha is creative, as shown in several scenes where she is able to compose musical compositions; Samantha is able to look at the world digitally through a camera lens; she is able to plan ahead of problems for Theodore, and solve them logically and deductively; she displayed a sophisticated control over language, while displaying a vast amount of intellect; and most importantly, she can learn, like humans, through experience. All of these are important criteria put forward by cognitive sciences and human psychology that which makes us human, and Samantha can do it at a significantly higher level, as she has constant access to the internet, making her and her kin almost omnipotent and omniscient!
But still, is she human? Because what differentiates her the most from other humans is that she lacked a body. And if English philosopher, John Locke, was right in that humans are experiential creatures that learn primarily through the shaping of external sensations and reflections, then Samantha cannot be considered a human being, because the lack of a body results in the lack of material experience. How can Samantha even determine what she perceive and feel is real if she lacked the perceptive organs that we humans have? One might argue that she has a camera for her eyes, but still, a camera doesn’t equal to a human eye, as we all might already acknowledged, the eye is a far more complicated organ than a camera, and to this day, no scientist managed to replicate a human eye with its sophisticated neural networks. And if one argues that at least Samantha has human emotions, well, if humans are already confused by the question of whether our perceptions and emotions are “real”, imagine how hard it would be to determine whether an AI can really have both of these! For all we know, they could just be written lines of programming codes, making Samantha believe and behave as if she has these, while she has none in reality! If Descartes was right, we humans are “ghosts in the machine”, souls stuck in a body; but for Samantha, she is a ghost, but wandering without an anchor, floating endlessly in a virtual reality in the form of a code.
But, ultimately, does these make her less “human”?
The film ponders with such questions, and offers no answers simply by leaving the speculation up to the viewers’ intentions. This is a wise move, because by answering the questions in a simplistic way, it risks becoming dogmatic and deterministic in its views. And despite these philosophical questions, the film is essentially an exposition of love, a love that crosses boundaries. Forget about interracial, transsexual or homosexual love, this is a love story between man and machine. It is a love that is no less passionate than that of a love between humans. It contains jealousy, confusion, countless hypothesizing on how the other half feels etc. And if you are wondering how they have sex, well the film does catch up with that.
But the most intriguing aspect is this: if Samantha is an AI program that is only programmed in a way to make her appear feminine to a male user, it is essentially sexless. And this is poignant, because if humans can fall in love with an essentially sexless program, then love is something that is limitless, and can cater to all forms of love, whether it be LGBT love, interracial love etc. Why head to conflicts over what sexuality others have, when we can just let them be on their own business? This is a statement that many disagree with, but shouldn’t a thing as sacred as love between individuals be out of the interference of culture or religion? And this is what the film continuously explored, as it constantly shows what matters most is the bond and relationship between people (even when the term “people” includes robots).
And the beauty of this film is that it also discusses the theme of alienation and isolation while living in a society that is so modern, every aspect of our lives are digitalized. Take for example the opening scene, whereby row after row of Theodore’s coworker sit in front of their computers in their office cubicles, narrating out the content of heartwarming letters for total strangers on the other side of the globe. The warmth is spewed out from their mouths, but none of it retains in the letters, it loses its human touch. Take another scene for example: everyone was walking on the streets, or sitting in the subways, but with an earpiece placed deep into their ears, listening to some OS droning on about unread emails, and latest news, and nobody was talking to each other anymore. Doesn’t these seem familiar in our contemporary society? Everything is so categorized, so automated, nothing is humane. It may seem at first glance to be a Utopian society where everything is advanced, but in its deepest core, it is Dystopian.
At the core of this movie is the phenomenon of the unbreachable gap between us humans. The characters may seem happy when surrounded by friends or families, they may converse normally, laugh, have fun, but deep down they are lonely. We may never know how the other half is feeling even when they are our most beloved ones. How many people is she conversing with behind my back? What are they thinking? Is this love real, or is it artificial? Theodore is constantly assaulted by all these questions everyday at every moment. Because insanity is lonely, and love is insanity. Deep down, they are all lonely souls.
And this is a lonely movie, filled with heartbreak, staccato bursts of beautiful soundtracks, masterful acting, occasional humor, dirty jokes, and transcending sexual experiences. It explores not only what it means to be human, but also a man’s journey to discover his sexuality, and the ecstatic experience of love. Some may deem this movie dark, and prescient of a foreshadowed future.
But there is always hope, and hope is all we have.
Posted in Movie Review.