by Jen Scouler
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember what the past used to be like without the technology we now have. From watching old friends live their lives through Facebook to forgotten chat messages, the information we get through our digital rectangles pretends to keep us connected, yet many would say that it’s actually made us more distant.
Sci-Fi Love Stories, part two
Her: Technology and Heartache
It’s the uncomfortable reality now that it can be easier to see less of people when the highlights of lives are shared online. Elsewhere, we walk streets plugged into the online world or document events with pictures without seeing what is actually around us. Her, a 2013 film directed and written by Spike Jonze, starts to explore the effects of this changing world by flashing us forward to a reality where that technology has only escalated.
Set in a rose-tinted, futuristic city, we experience the world through the eyes of Theodore Twombly, a socially awkward writer who is still reeling from the break up of his marriage a year previously. He’s bracing himself to finally sign the divorce papers but the memories of their time together keep reminding him of his loss.
That is, until he installs a new operating system, advertised as the first true example of artificial intelligence. Installed on his devices, a woman’s voice speaks out to him. ‘Samantha’, as she’s called, is both intelligent and naive, discovering her new life at warp speed. Even without a physical presence, the film manages to make her a presence in the room through her effect on Theodore, and their connection builds to a romantic relationship.
As a romance/sci-fi genre mix, Her spins two lessons. With the science fiction half, it speaks to the alienation that our upgrading technology gives us. From the romance side, it’s a difficult look at the effects that a break up can have, keeping you in a lingering recovery without any clear end in sight. The two combine to speak to the loneliness at the centre at both.
All the characters in the film are dealing with an uncomfortable level of disconnect. Theodore’s ex Katherine is trying to extricate herself from a relationship whilst avoiding further emotional involvement. Samantha is falling for Theodore but is forever stunted by her status as a formless intelligence. Meanwhile, Theodore himself is feeling the way that many of us will be familiar with after a particularly tough breakup, where you’re waking up from something severe. As one quote in the film points out:
‘Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a socially-acceptable form of insanity.’
In this peach-toned world, the insanity that many of these characters have known is even more difficult to find again. Theodore’s job involves crafting beautiful heartfelt messages for other people, dictating them to a computer that transforms it into a handwritten letter. Here, even the most personalised sentiment can now be ordered from someone else over the internet.
In discussion of this film, much emphasis is always placed on Samantha. It’s unsurprising – the voice acting by Scarlett Johnannson (a post-filming addition) is exceptional. The connection between her and Theodore is alien, but still touching and warm in a way that defies its questioned legitimacy.
The technology that makes Samantha is only a hair’s breadth away from us today. The movie toys with the idea however, that successful AI is only doomed to excel us, that our limited brains can’t take in the breath of feeling that something with access to everything on the planet could. Samantha opens Theodore’s eyes to the beauty he had forgotten to see, but at the same time, leaves him behind. In the film, if he’s to truly move on, he needs to find human connection again.
Despite their relationship at the centre, the film’s title lends an aspect of ambiguity. Is ‘Her’ Samantha, and her new presence that reawakens Theodore from his slump? Or is ‘Her’ actually the ghostly presence of Katherine that still lingers in the background, propelling Theodore to rebuild his worldview from the ground up?
Jonze’s film joins near-familiar science fiction with the story of waking up after heartache, and both confront the issue of loneliness in a changing reality. While the technology in our world is only going to work harder to discover new ways of bringing us together, Her reminds us nothing can have quite the same effect as a genuine human connection, as both devastating and fulfilling as that can be.