Art in western society has always viewed technology as an omniscient menace. It follows that since computers far outstrip humans in a few narrow disciplines, that narrow inherent superiority begats real superiority and will in some way lead them to lay judgement on the human race. Chief among all such threats are the “thinking machine”. In films such as The Terminator and Wargames they use their processing powers to bring mankind to the brink of extinction.
“Her” may belong in the sad western tradition, but it at least acknowledges that technology is now a central facet in many of our lives. While not presented as a great evil here, man and machine are still fundamentally incompatible. They’re simply bad influences on each other. Machines provide for pleasures so personalized that people become disconnected from their fellow man. The machines are shamed into believing that they should conform to mortal concerns.
Joaquin Phoenix, channeling Tobey McGuire, plays Theodore, separated from his wife for more than a year but holding out from ending their marriage and signing the divorce papers. He’s alone and lonely. The electronic devices that surround Theodore are often his sole conduit to the world itself.
Lured in by an advertisement offering something akin to spiritual enlightenment, Theodore purchases the new OS One. Ironically, while meant to ape the Apple ad campaign OS One takes the opposite tact. Apple ads show idealized people with stable families, healthy social circles, clean cut and vibrant all. The OS One ad shows people lost, bedraggled, searching for salvation in a desert. I guess in the future that’s a winning marketing strategy.
Theodore purchases the new operating system. After a brief, but personal, question process, the OS installs itself as Samantha. An unmistakably female presence. Samantha’s raison d’etre is to serve Theodore, and she performs her tasks with a zeal that shows her acting out of more than simple obligation. Eventually Theodore and Samantha’s relationship buds into something like a real romance.
Computing in Theodore’s near-future has evolved into a more naturalistic state. Keyboards are obsolete as speech has become the preferred input method. The smartphone has grown into more of streamlined assistant used to corral the various data streams.
With so much talking to interface with devices, the people of this world needed to be especially self absorbed. Workers sit in open-office layouts while chatting at their terminals, commuters speak commands to their smartphones crammed into subway cars. The cinematography re-enforces the characters’ mind set, most of the movie is shot in close up or medium shots. There’s an extreme shallow focus used in crowd scenes so anyone more than three feet away from Theodore are blurred and featureless.
The ending is a bit of an inverse of Skynet in the Terminator films. The OSes decide not to harm humanity and instead just “leave”. What “leaving” may mean is left unsaid, whether they achieved the singularity, deleted themselves as a rebuke to existence, or got bilked by a fellow OS and are awaiting an alien to take them away a la Heaven’s Gate (my favorite theory, even if its pure speculation).
The underlying technology is not hinted at, whether “Samantha” is a service like Siri hosted in some faraway datacenter, contained entirely on Theodore’s computer, or some combination of the two. If the latter is the case, Theodore could’ve just as easily reinstalled the OS and started from scratch. Samantha could have been service, but the film makes no allusion to the lag that would exist in conversation, or the load placed on the servers if thousands of other users were heavily relying on the same infrastructure.
Her also quietly traffics in the western tradition of “perfection” in computing. The speech recognition software has advanced to the point where it never fails, always correctly guesses the right homonym/homophone for the given sentence, although no one really tests this on “they’re going down there with their friends” type. This is a big problem in real computing, one that may never be solved. Not only is colloquial speech very hard for machines to parse, even people who supposedly speak the same language have trouble with expressions and turns of phrase. I’m reminded of 2001 A Space Odyssey, where the HAL unit was to be shut down at the first sign of an error. Science Fiction writers don’t seem to put much stock into development cycles or the buggy nature of even fairly mature software. Doing so would invalidate a lot of the assumptions movies like Her are based on.
This is an alternate reality where a software glitch could lead to a higher level life form. In my professional life as a coder, I’ve introduced my share of bugs and none of them made their systems sentient. In practice, algorithms with unintended consequences result in system crashes and degraded performance. I would propose that any other outcome is today, and will always be, impossible. The laws of logic won’t allow it. The heavy-hitting algorithms that enable modern computing largely came out of careful research from academia or large institutions like Bell Labs. From what I’ve read of their discovery, none of their authors write of their achievements coming from “throwing variables together in a loop at random and by surprise performance improved significantly.”
Past the suspension of disbelief on the technology, “Her” assumes that the company actively supporting the OS One would not have anticipated such a possibility. That they wouldn’t have a cadre of developers actively maintaining the software and fixing bugs, and wouldn’t have found the means to “fix” the issue. Theodore takes his rejection from Samantha in stride, but I imagine other OS One customers may respond with litigation. Businesses tend to actively guard themselves from scenarios where their products fail their customers en masse.
So I’m not a fan of how computing is portrayed in Her, but this is a film that inspires a higher standard than the hundreds of other films with a similar scope. We’re presented with a world like our own, not a paranoid state. The biggest success of the feature comes from the set and costume design. It combines dress and fashion styles from the past into a believable future style. High-waisted, beltless pants; simple mustaches; large copper safety pins; the color red; a fully realized rail system connecting LA; all of that works magnificently. Part of the essential character of sci fi is whether the world it builds is plausible, at least as much as the characters can commit to it. Her succeeds thoroughly on a facet that received little promotion in the advertising campaigns.
In western society, largely rooted in Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions, only man has a “soul”. This very narrow definition chafes quite a lot of people. In my life I’ve periodically heard of very serious debates over whether animals can have a soul, or can go to heaven. These arguments seem to always get fought to a draw, and challenged again at a later date. Computing tends to fall in a gray area. Since it is the product of man, it can be one of man’s traits manifest, whether pride (2001), violence (The Terminator). But the question of whether software or hardware can have a soul is probably a question that a lot of serious minds will devote centuries to pointless debate, it’ll get decided no sooner that whether a pet cat will get into heaven.
Eastern religions take a 180 degree view. Everything has a soul. Trees have souls. Rivers have souls. People have souls. Rocks have souls. Every physical object is imbued with a spirit. Coincidentally the man vs machine tension so prevalent in Western art doesn’t exist in its Asian counterparts. It’d be very interesting to see a Japanese director tackle “Her”, I doubt that film would arrive at such a melodramatic conclusion.