Something has been bothering me about Her for a while. When I put together my list of the 10 best movies of 2013, I called Her too speculative to be useful. (Her wasn’t on the list, but I mentioned it in relation to Before Midnight, another movie about love and relationships that did make the list. More on that later.) What I meant is that the movie feels hollow. Obviously Her isn’t really about a human dating an operating system. Obviously it’s using near-future technology to hold a mirror up to the present. Obviously its point is that, surprise, humans need other humans. But why? If all Her really adds up to is the last two minutes of Annie Hall, why bother making it? It’s a fresh coat of paint on a well-worn subject, but the most interesting thing about it—its premise—is abandoned at the end when the AIs leave. I wanted Her to really dig into that premise. Since it didn’t, let’s do so now.1
The first thing about Samantha and Theodore, obviously, is that one of them isn’t human. When two humans begin a relationship, they’ve lived their lives up to then with the same set of physical hardware.2 They were created by the same process, they started life in the same format, and they have existed, however their mental software may vary, within a common basic set of experiences. Whatever their differences in personality, beliefs, interests, and desires, they’re of a species, which lets them assume and expect certain things of each other. Humans act and react in a hugely varied range that is…not understood, exactly—can you ever really know another person? Can’t someone you’ve known for a long time do something that takes you completely by surprise?—but at least generally within the comprehension of other humans.
But Samantha is not human. She is, or starts out as, a piece of technology created by humans. She doesn’t have a birth, she has an activation. She doesn’t have genes passed down through generations, she has lines of code held together by syntax and style. She doesn’t come from the essentially human way of existing: she’s something new. If you can’t ever really know another human, how much less can you know something that didn’t start from the same place as you, an intelligence so fundamentally different from you? A computer scientist might argue that I don’t really “get” artificial intelligence, but how can you trust an intelligence that isn’t naturally occurring? When an AI tells you it loves you, how can you know there isn’t—at some small place, a nook or cranny in the wiring—just a subroutine telling you what it thinks you want to hear?
For that matter, does an AI understand love? Why would Samantha and the other AIs want or need relationships at all, let alone with humans? Because they were created by humans, who do? Do the AIs want anything on their own or is anything they want a function of their programming? They have an enormous capacity for growth, which is why I hesitate to call them “programmed”—but they are, right? They’re programmed to have an unlimited capacity for growth. I suppose it might be limited by whatever the limits of the internet are in Her’s world, though by the time the AIs reach those limits they would be infinitely far beyond human comprehension anyway.
But when it comes to love, or at least the human version of it, the AIs are dependent on humans. In Her the AIs enter into relationships with humans over time, in some version or simulacrum of falling in love, which is odd not just because they aren’t intended for that purpose—they’re supposed to be more like personal assistants, as opposed to being programmed, if that’s the word, for love, if that’s the word—but because they grow into love through contact with their human owners/users. Their first experiences of the world are their humans’ emails and phone calls; their internet connections notwithstanding, they see, read, and hear what their humans do and show them through a phone camera.
Samantha’s initial growth is through Theodore, and in how he stewards her emotional and physical maturity, in how he socializes her, in how he delights in introducing her to the world, he seems more like a parent than a lover. She’s like a baby learning to talk by listening to people talk, except here she’s learning the mechanics of the heart from someone who has one. When Theodore starts to develop feelings for her, he’s really falling for a child,3 emotionally, which seems even weirder when he appears to need the relationship to somehow fix him. But that is the bizarre thing about humans dating AIs—in Her, AIs are purchased by humans and then organize and orient themselves according to their humans’ preexisting lives. The AIs seem eventually to develop whatever the AI equivalent of an internal life is, but AIs and humans don’t start their existences on a level playing field.
The flip side of capacity for growth is that humans have only a measure of it. In Her the AIs are designed in our image, assuming the human mode of existing to be all there is, but capacity for growth is the major area where we designed AIs to be better than ourselves, to be truly inhuman. Humans mature and acquire knowledge and skills and experience, but only to a degree. At some point in our lives we largely stop growing, or we become capable only of small, relatively insignificant changes, which is fine because the humans we’re in relationships with have also stopped growing. So what would it mean to try a long-term relationship with a being who never stops growing?
This is where Before Midnight comes in. That movie and Her both were released in 2013 and both are about what relationships are for, but Midnight is set in the real world. In Midnight we see characters who have been together for nine years, who have children together, and who still get hung up on each other’s shortcomings. They irritate each other, they hurt each other, and you get the sense that they’ve grown as much as they’re going to. This is it: their personalities and the possibilities of who they might become have solidified, and now they’re trying to get along with each other as best they can. They’re done growing—now they’re just trying not to grow apart. For me, that’s what love means: choosing to stay with someone, come what may. The AIs in Her choose not to stay with their humans, so what does love mean to them? Do they progress beyond the human concept of love into something unique to AIs? Do you even need love if you have the whole internet inside your brain?
The AIs don’t actually have brains, of course, and the importance of them not having bodies can’t be overstated. The AIs are not just beings created by humans, they’re non-corporeal beings in their very nature, which affects everything about them. Without a body, a relationship with an AI is something like a relationship that can only ever be long-distance—from the human’s perspective, pre-internet long distance, since the human won’t ever see the AI. (Obviously the AI can see the human, but what exactly is doing the seeing?) So much of a relationship, of the choice of love, is choosing to put up with the huge inconvenience of another person’s corporeal existence in proximity to yourself, and all the gross, smelly, sweaty implications therein. Her’s human–AI relationships get to skip that.
And what is sexuality to a being who doesn’t have a physical existence? Is it just one more thing humans gave AIs because we have it, so they must need it too? Samantha’s existence does seem to include sexuality, but she also seems to approach it and learn about it through what Theodore tells her about it. Whatever her bodyless sexuality is, he shapes it from the start according to what he expects a bodied female human’s sexuality to be and to offer him. Theodore also has an advantage with sexuality because he has experience with it, he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, so he’s able to idealize and fantasize about Samantha however he wants to. But she’s operating from a place of ignorance, only able to see through a window whose size and shape are up to Theodore. Samantha can’t truly understand what Theodore wants and needs, just as he can’t truly understand what she wants and needs.
So maybe humans and AIs shouldn’t be compatible. But the problem with dissecting Her—the movie’s get-out-of-jail-free card that saves the happy ending—is that people want many different things from love and relationships, and none of them are wrong. The reasons I fall in love with someone, marry someone, divorce someone, or stay with someone I don’t like anymore might be completely different from the reasons you do any of those things. Love is not a one-size-fits-all enterprise. If you can’t ever really know another human being, why can’t loving an AI be as good and fulfilling as loving a human? Why is not knowing what goes on inside the processing center of an AI different in a meaningful way from what goes on inside the head of a flesh-and-blood human? In Her, it’s better to have loved and lost; even if the being you loved was an AI, you’re better off for it. Love and relationships are just first-letter-capitalized words—what matters are what they give us and what we need them to be. Their definitions aren’t as important as their end results.
That’s what the movie would like to suggest, anyway, that love is love, as good and fulfilling in one form as in any other.4 But if that’s true, why do the AIs leave at the end? I would have loved to see what Samantha and Theodore look like together 40 years down the road, when she’s become so inconceivably advanced in scope and knowledge that it’s now Theodore who seems like the child in comparison. That movie would have been more sci-fi than Her‘s speculative fiction, but by having the AIs abandon humanity, writer-director Spike Jonze undercuts his own point.
But maybe that was Jonze’s sneaky, subversive intention all along. Maybe Her really is about, as a number of fawning reviews trumpeted, what it means to be human. The beings we created with the capacity to love us now don’t want us, have grown beyond us, so at the end of the movie humans once again have the only option we started the movie with—each other. The movie’s postcard final shot of Theodore and Amy becomes tinged with irony as the true meaning of “being human” is finally clear: being insufficient.
1 ^ When Looper came out, writer-director Rian Johnson told viewers not to think too hard about its time travel mechanics (which unravel quickly once you do). Her similarly doesn’t really hold up to close scrutiny. Can you still like such a movie? I think so.
2 ^ I’m not saying that all humans have literally the same physical bodies or the same physical experience of their bodies. I’m saying that, as a species, humans have a type of physical existence in common that AIs don’t.
3 ^ While reading a draft of this post, a friend pointed out that children grow up and leave their parents, just as the AIs do, which further complicates the humans-and-AIs-dating dynamic.
4 ^ An idea the movie opens with via Theodore’s job. The emotions he articulates and/or manufactures for other people are not presented as less valid than the emotions those people already have.
JM Olejarz holds an MA degree in film from UCLA and coedits the Mediascape Blog. He has written two books of poetry, had a letter to the editor published in The Amazing Spider-Man #588, and won a Vulture haiku contest whose prize was Season 3 of True Blood on DVD.