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December 25, 2013

Bemusement is the typical response when people hear the premise of Spike Jonze’ love story, her. To be fair, that’s kind of the response to the rest of his films, but there’s something different here. Where the likes of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation hinge on some sort of high-surreality, her takes a downright pedestrian departure from the real world: if we do somehow develop a true artificial intelligence, what’s to say someone might not fall in love with one, and vice versa?

It’s actually pretty well-covered ground for sci-fi fans, with two ingenious tweaks. Normally this story plays out in terms of robots: humanoid androids look and sound like us, but Do They Really Feel? This is the motivating question of Blade Runner — among many others — and it usually operates as a method of probing how we treat our fellow human beings, with human-robot love a thinly-veiled reference to interracial relationships.

But the AI in her isn’t running an android; it’s running a computer and a smartphone. It’s basically a souped-up version of Siri, which suddenly grounds these ideas in a much more familiar world than usual. This isn’t some imaginary, futuristic place; this is Los Angeles, mashed up with Singapore. The technology may be advanced, but it’s instantly recognizable as basically what we use now, just more so.

And so we recognize the technology that surrounds Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix). He carries something like a smartphone in his pocket, talking and listening on something like a bluetooth earbud, and it syncs up with his work and home computers. Even before the operating system upgrade, he can control it with natural language: “Play a melancholy song. Not this one; play another melancholy song.”

Then he installs the new OS — the first run by a true AI — and chooses a female voice who in turn claims the name Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). And maybe it’s partially loneliness and depression after the end of a long relationship, but Theodore starts to fall for Samantha. And she, in turn, falls for him.

The script is clear that this isn’t just part of the programming; Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) relates the story about the guy who keeps hitting on his OS, only to be rebuffed. No, this is a real, emergent emotional response. And that’s the other tweak: Jonze has no interest in questioning whether a true AI could have feelings; they just do. This is not a simple morality tale about how we treat those not quite like us, but rather a sensitive exploration of how we ourselves fall in love.

One of the most famous tests for what could be called “artificial intelligence” was proposed by Alan Turing. Basically: if you’re communicating with something and it seems intelligent to you, then it’s intelligent. Importantly, the communication has nothing to do with the physical appearance; the original formulation was something like a chatroom, with only text to mediate between you and the other person. But speaking and hearing isn’t a huge change, especially as voice rendering technology gets better and better.

The idea of the reality of a simulation is echoed in Theodore’s own job, ghostwriting for “”. He’s a talented mimic, picking up on details of his clients’ relationships — romantic, familial, friendly, or whatever else — and works in their voice. The sentiments are real, even if Theodore is composing them instead of the clients themselves. Indeed, the relationships that develop have their own quirky dynamics that incorporate Theodore’s role as amanuensis, but they’re just as real as if the clients wrote their own letters. It’s not that big a leap from simulating the act of writing these letters to simulating the whole person.

It’s not even surprising that someone could fall in love with their OS. Online dating has shed much of its stigma, and the growing prevalence of the internet in our lives has led to more and more people meeting from half a world away, developing friendships, and, yes, falling in love without ever meeting in person. It may still feel unusual or strange, or even ill-advised, but I think most people are on board with the idea that these feelings are real. On Theodore’s end, the only difference is that the person he’s speaking with isn’t a human being on the other side of the planet, but a pattern of electrical impulses running through a hunk of silicon in his pocket. That Theodore could fall in love with a sufficiently realistic AI should be obvious, even if you don’t believe Samantha has any “real” self-awareness.

In fact, if we want to believe ourselves to be driven by anything more than mere evolutionary biology, we must take seriously the idea of love as divorced from physical, biological attraction. All the technology in the story serves only to believably strip away all this biological noise from the central question of what it means to fall in love. In the end, her is not really about her, but about him; not whether an OS can feel love, but what it means for us to feel anything in the first place.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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