Spike Jonze’s Her holds up a decade later

“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam,” author Frederik Pohl once wrote. AI has been the subject of sci-fi for so long it’s nearly cliche. Decades before anything resembling large language models arrived, creative minds had deftly imagined what a world populated by artificial minds would look like, from Metropolis to 2001: A Space Odyssey, usually as thinking, feeling, loving robots of some kind or another. But what, then, is AI’s traffic jam?

In lesser works, injecting dire contemporary issues into a plot often results in a heavy-handed, moralizing allegory. It draws an insistently pessimistic future. Films in particular have been concerned with our relationship to AI, whether romantic or familial. But even many well-received AI-related movies in the last decade — Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049, After Yang, and, who knew, M3GAN — may be decent on their own, but offer few insights about AI itself.  

The exception that comes to mind is older than those films and also, arguably, hornier: Spike Jonze’s Her. Upon rewatching it, I noticed that this pre-AlphaGo film holds up beautifully and still offers a wealth of insight. It also doesn’t shy away from the murky and inevitably complicated feelings we’ll have toward AI, and Jonze first expressed those over a decade ago.

The question to ask isn’t “How will they slaughter us?” but “What insecurities might they have?”

Set in Los Angeles of the near future, the movie features Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man named Theodore Twombly. In the midst of a divorce, he buys a virtual assistant-like operating system. (“It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness,” says the voice in the ad.) Upon awakening, the operating system names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and the two begin to develop an emotional bond. Unlike most of Hollywood’s depictions of AI, Her restrains Johansson to the realm of voice, rather than giving her a bodily form, confident that audiences will understand attraction even when it’s not physical. One day, to help Theodore overcome his loneliness, Samantha sets up a blind date. The night ends badly and, as he’s lying on his bed, Theodore and Samantha confess their feelings for each other. After what can be described as phone sex, their romance begins. Although Johansson herself never appears on-screen, her husky, sandpapery voice sonically — yet vividly — renders a kind of portrait in absentia.

Jonze understands that when envisioning human-like AI, the question to ask isn’t “How will they slaughter us?” but “What insecurities might they have?” For Samantha, much of her angst comes from her lack of a physical form. Fantasizing about walking next to Theodore, she experiences the whole-body equivalent of the phantom limb syndrome. “I could feel the weight of my body and I was even fantasizing that I had an itch on my back,” she confides. “And I imagined that you scratched it for me.” Jonze imagines the inner travails of Samantha as someone who starts posing the kinds of existential inquiries that only a disembodied operating system can ask. At one point, she even poses a kind of Cartesian skepticism, doubting the authenticity of the feelings that emerged from her electrical signals: “Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? And that idea really hurts.”

Her yearning for physical contact — or perhaps her fear that Theodore sees its absence as a flaw in their relationship — leads to a believable gaffe (this is Jonze’s traffic jam) when she brings in a surrogate for Theodore to fondle while Samantha synchronizes her voice with the body double’s movements. Anyone with a physical form would intuitively understand that this proposal won’t work — it weirds the hell out of Theodore, and afterward the couple fights — but it’s an understandable move for a bodiless AI.

One more exemplary touch by Jonze is a scene where Samantha and Theodore are lying on a beach. Samantha wants to record the moment, but photographs won’t do. (Because Theodore carries her in a phone-like device, it’ll just look like him lying on the beach with a phone.) So, what does she do? She composes a piece of music that encapsulates the ambiance of the beach. A composition of pixels, Samantha shows us, is not the only way to immortalize a memory.

Whereas Theodore was drawn to Samantha’s childlike sense of wonder, as the movie progresses, her eagerness to learn about the world transforms her — and other OSes — into something much more advanced than mere AI assistants. Samantha also reveals that even when she’s with Theodore, she’s been simultaneously interacting with other OSes, talking to thousands of other people and, devastatingly to Theodore, has fallen in love with hundreds of them. With a mix of what’s perhaps pity and graciousness, Samantha and other OSes decide to leave humans. For Theodore, who earns his living by writing letters, the greatest tragedy of advanced AI may not be job loss but that it will gain admittance to your heart only to shatter it. (A breakup with AI may as well be a Pohlian car crash.) Back in 2013, who could’ve guessed that a story featuring aural sex with a girl-Linux would seem so prescient a decade later?

Movies that came after Her would not hold up as well. I winced my way through a rewatch of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, a movie with a similar setup: a sensitive guy develops a crush on a female AI. A coder named Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected by a playboy tech mogul (Oscar Isaac) to evaluate an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander). They administer a version of the Turing test in which, unlike the original where the interlocutor is hidden, you interact with Ava, who has a mechanical body and yet is so human-like that she’ll convince you that she has consciousness — an intriguing twist. However, Garland’s dialogue consists of faux-profound riffs about machine consciousness and dorm-room philosophizing about Jackson Pollock. 

Whereas Her is richly thematized by Samantha’s bodylessness, Ex Machina is trapped in the shopworn Oedipal theme common in AI films, namely, that a creation must kill its creator. After plunging a sushi knife into the tech billionaire who has just fatally assaulted his robot maid (played by Sonoya Mizuno, who deserves no such fate), our genie escapes. I think the movie was trying to show the audience that Ava is indeed conscious. However, the issue is that the two male characters are so unimaginatively caricatural — a girl-shy coder and a misogynistic alpha male — that she’s never challenged enough to show her complex humanity against those simpletons. (They probably wouldn’t pass the Turing test.) And Caleb seems to be compelled to free her not because he was convinced by her humanity, but by her femininity. 

I also found myself embarrassed by the gratuitous display of unclothed female bodies in Ex Machina, whereas Her is a much sexier film without even showing sex. The movie’s ending, where two men are punished by Ava, seems like a cheap bid to establish Garland’s feminist credentials. But it ultimately sells her short because it degrades her to a manipulative killer robot.

Seems more like a human off his Lexapro than a smart imagination of the artificial mind

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which is mostly a fine cyberpunk movie, plays into the same tropes when portraying AI intimacy, though here it’s between two robots. At the outset, the movie takes a common misstep in portraying non-human characters: creating one with a psychological makeup identical to a human with a sprinkling of some predictably animatronic behaviors — speaking in a flat tone, emotionally reserved, or socially awkward. So, what we get is a melancholic K (Ryan Gosling), who seems more like a human off his Lexapro than a smart imagination of the artificial mind.

K is accompanied by Joi, a holographic ingénue played by Ana de Armas, who hovers around K like Tinkerbell as he goes about completing his missions. What’s unconvincing isn’t K’s love for Joi the AI girlfriend — it’s been widely observed that people can even love a pillow cover if there are pretty characters on it — but Joi’s love for K. Why is she so singularly devoted to K? (“I always knew you were special,” she says, leaving it at that.) It turns out that Joi is a mass-produced software product, preprogrammed to serve its owner, whereas for Samantha, romantic love was never in her specifications but developed naturally. Joi’s love is inevitable, while Samantha’s is incidental, and it’s all the more credible for it.

Like Her, the movie features a scene where Joi invites a real person, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) to initiate a three-way. But unlike Her, alas, it happens. As Joi makes her best effort to superimpose her hologram on Mariette’s corporeal body, we see de Armas’ face flickering and emerging on Davis’ as still serotonin-deficient Gosling watches it numbly. A puzzling scene; I was at a loss if I was supposed to find it sexy, shocking, grotesque, funny, or all of the above.

Depicting intimacy with AI has ample room for more exploration. For example, what would female desire toward AI characters look like? Intimate relationships need not be romantic. Perhaps AI agents might be less invested in arbitrary bonds like parental relationships — you never chose them and vice versa — but more so in intentionally cultivated ones like friendships. (Though Her is focused on a relationship that reads as heterosexual, it also suggests a more nebulous intimacy between Amy Adams’ character and her female-coded AI.)

The path forward for AI-themed work is to interrogate elementary yet fundamental questions. How should we conceptualize non-human consciousness? What does psychological realism even mean when characters are artificially intelligent? (For my money, Pluto, a 2004 manga — a reinterpretation of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy — is a fine example of this.)

Filmmakers should also understand that there’s nothing inherently naive about a non-antagonistic vision of AI, but resorting to boilerplate cynicism is. It helps to remember that when it comes to clones — a once popular topic in the early aughts — the paragon of the genre is Kazuo Ishiguro’s tender novel Never Let Me Go, not those featuring, say, a vengeful army of doppelgängers. Miserabilist, catastrophizing stories are easier to concoct than Jonze’s generously imagined future, where AI is a sympathetic, dignified being — not an angel of death but a searching soul.

By 111 Tech

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