A little while after watching the movie “Her,” I still find myself pulled in by the images and ideas sown throughout the film, which haunt me as though they appear on a hologram like those in the movie’s slightly futuristic setting.
Perhaps all this (the word “haunt” in particular) sounds like a negative rather than positive description, but negativity is not at all what I mean to evoke. “Her” was utterly compelling, and I found it so from start to finish. I know this to be the case, because I actually had a snack sitting beside me for half of the movie that went completely untouched (this is unheard of!) Yet, as suggested by my opening statement, “Her” wasn’t always easy to watch. At some points, it was uncomfortable and even unpleasant. However, this sort of experience is not something that should be eradicated from art. Rather, it is and can be a meaningful aspect of art; one might go so far as to say that this can be necessary for art.
I could expand on this idea a lot more- of the difficulty of art (both in understanding and in the experience of receiving)- but there are so many things which I want to discuss from this film, so perhaps this “difficulty” should be the subject of a future post. Suffice it to say that a thing does not possess value based on its digestibility: that is, how easy or hard it is, or how pleasant it is. The latter would be the case if pleasure were synonymous with value, or if pleasure alone were capable of providing fulfillment; yet neither one of these aligns with reality. Art strives to capture something real and transcendent; it seeks a holistic vision of the universe, to unite different aspects of experience. If it remains merely at the level of pleasure, the result might be a final product designed only for entertainment or escapism. Good art- true art- might be uncomfortable simply because it is true. The experience might have uncomfortable moments, but these are necessary in order to lead to another subsequent moment, or to a profound insight which would not be possible without the “unpleasantness.”
What is so uncomfortable about “Her”? Well, perhaps this is as good a time as any to dive into the premise. I have been wanting to see this movie for a very long time (since before it came out), and upon mentioning it to someone else or telling them what it is about, the response usually goes something like this: “That sounds weird.” The very weirdness or “unnaturalness” of Her’s fundamental premise seems to be the greatest impediment to people seeing the film. To put it baldly, “Her” is about a lonely man who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating device.
“A man falling in love with a computer? That sounds creepy. That’s not right. That would never happen. Why would I want to watch something like that?”
All good objections, I suppose, but I would argue that the premise of “Her,” which strikes us as so very strange, is not actually as far removed from reality as we may think. Indeed, “Her” offers a prescient and pressing cultural commentary on the modern spheres of love and technology, and how they overlap or restrict one another.
There are so many things I could say about this film, and so many things which require further thought and discussion (a sign of a good film, I think), but I will limit myself to offering what I noticed as some of the striking features of what true love is or should be. These truths of love are revealed through its very distortion, through the contrast between Theodore’s relationship with his OS device, and “normal” human relationships.
First of all, love is singular. Theodore is very lonely. He wants to be loved but he does not always know how to go about searching for this love or responding to love or dealing with the inevitable complications of love. His desire for love reflects the universal (and natural) human longing, which is one of the many reasons why this film resonates deeply. Yet Theodore does not just want to be loved with a blanket statement, by being the recipient of the right words and phrases. He wants to be loved as an individual; he wants to be chosen and appreciated in singularity. In other words, the love only has value and is authentic when it is within the bounds of a clearly defined commitment. This is evident in the most crucial moment of Theodore’s disillusion with the OS device. When Theodore finds out that the system simultaneously holds conversations and is even “in love” with numerous other humans, the love that Theodore held before no longer feels so binding or valuable.
What’s more, true love is between human beings, and human beings are unities of mind, body and spirit. Theodore’s OS device, called Samantha, can acquire new information at an alarming rate, but she (forgive me the use of this personal pronoun; it is hard to know how to write about this unusual relationship) does not have a body. Does this matter? In the course of the film, it seems to matter quite a lot, as the issue recurs constantly. Samantha expresses a desire for a body so that their relationship can be equal and real. This leads to one of the aforementioned uncomfortable scenes when Samantha hires a surrogate human being to be a “body,” allowing Samantha vicariously to have sexual relations with Theodore.
If this sounds uncomfortable, unnatural or wrong, then the movie also brings out these same intuitions. Theodore cannot follow through with the surrogacy situation because it does not feel right to him. I would argue that the unnaturalness lies in the assumption that humans just have bodies, whereas Samantha does not have a body. However, a human being does not just have a body; he or she, in a sense, is a body. To separate any of these aspects of self not only diminishes the human person, but also fails to see the human person as a whole person. Here we have deviated from the surreal field of human-computer romance to the very real field of human-to-human romantic relationships, many of which are similarly detached and even alienating. Whenever an encounter between human beings does not take into account the full person, it devolves into one person using another as an object, and becomes more like the sort of relationship we have been discussing: between a human and some non-human, less-than-human entity.
The last thing I would like to touch on here is the accusation with which Theodore is charged and which torments him in regards to his relationship with Samantha: that he is incapable of dealing with real emotions. The idea that Theodore turns to technology to avoid human complexity is really fascinating, and relevant as well, seeming to suggest that technology numbs us and dulls our human sensibilities. When he first interacts with Samantha, she explains that she learns everything from him, experiencing through his experiences, acquiring knowledge based on the things that he tells her. From this, is it possible to suggest that Samantha is a creation of his own mind and the product of his own experiences, that he is really in love with an extension of himself?
What would it mean if this were the case? I think it points out another truth of true love and unveils the ultimate unsatisfactoriness of Theodore’s disassociated relationship. True love is between human persons, and while it nurtures the self, it also allows one to escape the self, to transcend the confines of ego and become capable of authentic altruism. Theodore’s love is the opposite of this. It keeps him deep inside himself. It is safe, but as a result, it is also not surprising, spontaneous or unpredictable. It cannot truly bring joy, because it is what he asks it to be and no more.
C.S. Lewis said that “to love at all is to be vulnerable,” and I think this really captures the heart of the matter. Vulnerability, singularity and unity are all essential in true love, a love that crosses the divide between persons and respects the whole person. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha lacks all of these vital and fundamental aspects, and so perhaps it is not love at all. It might be more accurately called desire, or fear, but the desire for love and the fear of pain are not enough to produce love, and as this fascinating film illustrates clearly, they are not enough to fill the deep void left by loneliness.