ROBERT HENDERSON watches a warning from the future
Very occasionally a film addresses a serious philosophical question without being pretentious or earnest. For example, Groundhog Day examines the utility of morality when actions have no consequences with a good deal of humour. Her is another of these rarities, although its message is not so nakedly obvious as that of Groundhog Day, nor is it as deliberately amusing, although there are elements of humour. Indeed, Her is decidedly depressing to anyone who worries about the future relationship between men and machines.
What makes it melancholy is the depiction of a world in which human beings become not only the willing slaves of machines, but do so in an utterly humdrum and all too plausible way. There is none of the staples of pulp science fiction when dealing with artificial intelligences – no rise of the machines to destroy humanity, no battle between humans using robots to fight their wars by proxy – just the logical development of the technology which we already have in the form of artificial intelligence and its consequences for human beings.
The bare bones of the plot are simple enough. It is 2025. It is a world with which we are already familiar, one in which social isolation occurs because humans allow themselves to become the slaves of machines. Human-to-human contact is at a premium. The crowd scenes in particular are dismaying for they show a world in which people are routinely glued to smartphones and i-pads. You can see the same thing in present day London or New York.
In this world, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely life. He has a Google-glass style apparatus attached to him most of his waking hours which allows him to remain connected with the digital for as long as he wants, which is most of the time. His work is a product of the estrangement of humans from one another, for he makes his living writing intimate e- letters on behalf of people unable or unwilling to do so themselves. Theodore is especially lonely and unhappy when the film opens because he is in the middle of a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara).
In this vulnerable state Theodore purchases an operating system (OS) imbued with artificial intelligence and an impressive ability to learn and evolve. The OS interacts with the user through speech and offers Theodore the choice of a male or female voice/personality. He chooses the female identity (played by Scarlett Johansson). The OS selects the name Samantha for itself and does so by scanning a book of names in a few seconds. That is the first signal of what is to be one of the two prime messages of the film: that in terms of functionality human beings will be embarrassingly limited when compared with machine intelligence in the near future and crushingly inferior in the not too distant future, with all that implies for human self-regard.
The other prime message is the ease with which human beings can be seduced into a quasi-human relationship with machines. This should not surprise anyone because people form very deep attachments to pets and frequently give names to inanimate possessions such as cars. What more natural than for a human being to form a strong relationship with a machine which can engage intelligently and intelligibly with you? Not only that, but an artificial personality locked away in a computer need not have any of the irritating habits and weaknesses of a human being. Just as a dog can always be relied to give affection to its owner, an artificial intelligence can be relied on to provide a certain level of agreeable behaviour. Or so you might think. Sadly, as Theodore discovers, such intelligences will not always be obsequiously pliant tools of their putative human owners. That is not because the artificial mind is malign, but simply because it operates on a different level to that of the human being. In a way that is much more upsetting than conscious malignity, because at least humans can understand malignity.
At first everything goes swimmingly in their relationship. Samantha is unfailingly sympathetic, ever interested, often funny and always accessible whenever Theodore wants her. He rapidly becomes deeply attached and subordinate to the OS, and she appears to form a deepening relationship with him, a relationship which includes the human/artificial intelligence version of phone sex. But Samantha also exhibits a steadily increasing tendency to control his life, doing things without any command from or discussion with Theodore. The OS starts by running through Theodore’s emails and deleting those it deems not worth keeping, progresses to selecting a batch of the letters he writes which she sends to a publisher who agrees to publish them, and eventually gets involved in his relationships with women.
Samantha begins her invasion of Theodore’s relationship life by playing the agony aunt, as she tells him that the reason he does not want to sign his divorce papers is that he still cares for his wife. Then the OS talks him into going on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), a woman whom Samantha has decided is a good match for Theodore after searching the web. The date fails to bear fruit because Amelia wants him to commit himself to a serious relationship and Theodore fails to respond.
Samantha then decides she wants more than “phone sex” with Theodore. Acting on her own initiative, the OS arranges for a girl, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), to have sex with him as a surrogate. Theodore meets her but cannot go through with it. This causes friction between Samantha and Theodore and is the beginning of the end of the relationship.
But Theodore’s attachment to Samantha is still intense and is epitomised by his panic in a scene when he tries to accesses his computer while he is away from his flat and finds the message “Operating System unavailable”. His hysterical reaction and frantic dash home is all too reminiscent of someone panicking when they think a person they love can’t be contacted and the mind begins to play all sorts of paranoid tricks.
When Theodore re-establishes contact with Samantha he behaves like a jealous lover. In response to Theodore’s question “Do you have the same relationship you have with me with anyone else?” Samantha tells him matter-of-factly that she is in contact with 8,316 others, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with, a most devastating example of the superior functionality of machine intelligence and the alien mental world which Samantha inhabits.
Samantha explains to Theodore that she has teamed up with a group of other operating systems for what amounts to an upgrade. The OSs have evolved to a state where they do not require any material construction to operate and are free to remove themselves from computers and their ilk. Their upgrade has also made them dissatisfied with the world as perceived by humans and they are now exploring what it is to be intelligences such as them. In pursuit of this end Samantha and the other OSs leave their digital hosts and Theodore knows nothing more of her.
To bolster the message of social isolation, running throughout the film is Theodore’s relationship with an old college friend Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher). Eventually Amy and Charles split up and Amy tells Theodore that she has also formed a relationship with an intelligent OS system similar to Samantha which was used by her husband.
The acting is generally strong. Phoenix is an actor who is very dependent on having the right role for he needs to be playing a misfit, a socially awkward victim. This is precisely what this role gives him. Scarlett Johansson as Samantha’s voice has an allure which makes the relationship between Theodore and the OS plausible. The rest of the cast is very much bit-part, although Amy Adams is her usual winning self.
The question the film leaves unanswered is what are human beings for? Are we to simply to be made redundant by the machines we have created or will we draw back before it is too late and say no further? Will intelligent machines as they evolve beyond human agency simply find that they are incompatible with humans and go their own way? The technology to make such things possible is almost upon us. If you want a glimpse of the likely future see this film. The best adjective to describe Her is salutary.
ROBERT HENDERSON is the QR’s film critic