Her (2013): If You Created Her, Is It Real Love?In this retrospective Mind Matters movie review, Adam Nieri ponders the questions raised by a thoughtful AI film
Her (2013) was a significant sci-fi release because it addressed the rise of artificial intelligence hype in the 2010s.
Why the spike in hype? Starting in the late 2000s and growing during the early 2010s, faster processing speeds and more efficient computer languages meant that artificial intelligence advanced much more quickly than in the 1990s. As a result, the cultural hype exploded into film, shows, music, documentaries, and internet culture.
Suddenly, that sci-fi nerd, a former social nonentity, became a visionary, a futurist intellectual. Libraries, hipster breweries, college campuses, and lecture halls were filled with idealistic thinkers waxing eloquent about the future of artificial intelligence and the philosophical questions that it raises. Quickly and inevitably, the creative types went to work painting, filming, writing, recording, and editing to reflect on these questions. A captivated culture was swept away by the ponderings of films like Ex Machina (2014), followed by shows like Humans (2015), and even video games like Detroit: Become Human (2018). Soon, it felt as though the entire culture was in a dizzy haze of abstract ideas about what it means to be human and how the revolution of artificial intelligence will reconstruct our understanding of the universe.
It was into this haze that Spike Jonze released Her in 2013. Her (2013) is one of the first modern films to dive deep into the heart of what we consider human (love) in an attempt to deconstruct and demystify it. Let me explain…
Theodore (the protagonist) is crushed by the failure of his marriage with Catherine. After wallowing in depression after the divorce, he begins a relationship with Samantha, an artificial intelligence. Throughout the film, that relationship grows like any other. Toward the end, Samantha no longer feels like an artificial intelligence, more like a long-distance relationship.
Ultimately, however, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha ends as he begins to realize the limitations of her artificiality. She, meanwhile (like Dr. Manhattan), becomes bored with humanity and leaves for a “higher purpose.” In the end, Theodore (we are led to assume) finds true and meaningful love in a budding relationship with Amy, a close friend.
Taking a step back, we can observe three stages of Theodore’s journey. Through flashbacks and dialogue, we get a picture of Theodore’s failed marriage to Catherine. It seems like an ordinary marriage, at least from an ideologically secular point of view. They meet, they “fall in love”, everything is happy, they move in together, they get married, and everything is wonderful. However, conflict arrives (as it inevitably does in every marriage). A relationship built on what I like to call the “tummy giggles” does not withstand the strain. Theodore and Catherine divorce and part ways.
Queue Samantha. This is where we spend the majority of the film. Theodore uploads and updates Samantha and the relationship blossoms. The “tummy giggles” quickly set in and we are taken along for the ride as Theodore “falls in love” again. His relationship with Samantha feels similar to the beginning of his relationship with Catherine. However, unlike Catherine, Samantha is exactly what Theodore was looking for. No surprise there; Samantha is, literally, adjusted and updated according to Theodore’s preferences from when he initially began speaking to her. She exists only to be Theodore’s soulmate. When his relationship with Samantha ends, it is not because they were a bad match but because, despite how much Theodore wanted to believe she was human, she was not.
Queue Amy. Theodore’s relationship with her, gradually built and anticipated, is the amalgamation of his past relationships. Catherine was human but she didn’t have the kind of personality that Theodore was looking for. Samantha had the kind of personality that Theodore was looking for but she wasn’t human. Amy, we are to assume, meets both criteria. The movie ends with Theodore and Amy smiling on a rooftop and music in the background.
As I sit back and ponder the structure of the film, I can’t help but notice a parallel between my view of love as metaphysical and relational and the film’s presentation of artificial intelligence. In one corner we have Catherine, who represents the tangible. She’s what we can feel, see, taste, and hear about love. She is human and she is there. In the other corner we have Samantha, who represents the intangible. She’s what we can’t see, but what we know and feel. In the middle we have Amy, she’s what we can see and what we can know and feel.
While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the philosophy of love, I do feel there is a certain duality of the material and the immaterial. In love, the intangible is displayed through the physical. What we do is a product of who we are and what we believe. Thus, love is a beautiful relationship between what is extrinsically physical and what is intrinsically metaphysical.
A common trope assumes that artificial intelligence is a future reality based on the reduction of human consciousness to mere physical processes. But Her (2013) isn’t trying to do that. Samantha isn’t supposed to convince us that human experience can be reduced to neurons. Rather, her portrayal urges us to imagine that artificial intelligence can be just as ethereal and ineffable as that aspect of love that we consider immaterial.
Theodore’s immaterial connection and relationship with Samantha is reinforced by her lack of a body. As a result, Her (2013) asks us to demystify the idea of love by pondering what makes it so uniquely human. In the end, there’s nothing special or inexplicable about those immaterial qualities of love. Rather, it’s the presentation of something that is deeply personal that feels so immaterial to us.
I have a problem with this ideology on several levels. I find myself disagreeing with the film’s fundamental understanding of love. Theodore isn’t falling in love with a separate entity with its own feelings, thoughts, and emotions. Rather, Samantha is a mirror of everything that Theodore wanted. When Theodore is setting up the program, he is asked several questions that personalize Samantha to his tastes. As their relationship grows, Samantha learns and is shaped by those preferences. Falling in love with something you shaped isn’t what I would remotely consider to be love. I consider love to be a radical self-denial for the sake of someone else. A marriage isn’t successful based on how well two people get along when they’re happy; it’s successful based on how well they get along when they’re not happy. In simple terms, marriage is about taking two rather different things and creating something different again, unique, and incredible. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha isn’t about self-denial; it’s about self-indulgence. Paint me a real picture of what true love is and I doubt that demystifying it for the sake of artificial intelligence would be as successful.
Despite its attempt at restructuring the philosophy of love and life, I loved Her (2013) as a film. It was personal and dramatic, and leaves you thinking deeply about relationships. If you’re more of a fan of Terminator-style shoot-em-ups— blood, grease, guns, and explosions—trust me, Her (2013) is certainly not for you. However, if you love a good drama that leaves you with the “tummy giggles,” then Her (2013) is absolutely worth a watch.
If you enjoyed this review by Adam Nieri, you might want to check through the ones below as well for thoughts about films that might interest you, brought to you by Mind Matters News Sci-Fi Saturday:
2019’s Best and Worst Sci-Fi TV: 2019 featured many sci-fi television and movies that were less sci-fi than political narrative. In 2019, I fell out with Netflix. I felt bombarded by more and more edgy content, as though Netflix wanted me to know how “adult” it is. Rather than producing a few amazing originals, Netflix started vomiting up a ton of terrible originals.
Ad Astra: The Great Silence becomes personal. The film images the fate of those who seek significance in the stars and may well wait indefinitely. In a world where the divine touch of extraterrestrial intelligence doesn’t elevate human existence to any level of significance, we are left with Ad Astra: a slow, methodical decay of human significance.
Alita, Battle Angel A Mind Matters Review: If you love anime and felt betrayed by the flop of Ghost, I would highly recommend Alita.
Another Life All fun and games till an AI falls in love. Then it descends into a convoluted drift of uncertain storytelling. And the victim is not primarily the viewer, who has other options. The victim is the art itself.
The Expanse: A Mind Matters TV Series Review The attention to detail and the realistic portrayal of space set it apart from run-of-the-mill sci-fi. I love the deep mystery surrounding the show’s central narrative device, the proto-molecule. It is somewhat sentient and is desperately trying to figure out what happened to the civilization that created it and was then wiped out while it lay dormant in our solar system for millions of years.
The Feed—A Mind Matters TV Series Review: I started out thinking that the show was just the usual ho-hum tyrant-AI-takes-over flick and it is so good to be wrong! Imagine a world where your mind is stored on social media. Now, what happens if someone steals, then abandons it? What will you do?
How To Become Human—A Mind Matters Short Film Review. This new film turns a conventional sci-fi storytelling premise upside down. Rather than an AI struggling to become human in a human-dominated world, we watch a human struggling to be more like an artificial intelligence in an AI-dominated world.
Lost in Space, A Mind Matters TV series review. I was skeptical at first, based on Netflix’s track record, but was pleasantly surprised. If I could rewind time a week and add a piece of 2019 sci-fi to my list of the year’s Best and Worst Sci-Fi TV, I would add Netflix’s Lost in Space, Season 2—which came out just after I had published. Let’s fix that now.
Love, death, & robots Despite the trash and ruined expectations, several shorts were enjoyable and downright fun to watch
Nightflyers: A Mind Matters TV Series Review Despite its flaws, Nightflyers does not deserve all the criticism it received. It’s the saga of a ship of scientists making their way through the cosmos to unlock the secrets of a mysterious entity known as Volcryn. It turns out that Volcryn is not the only mystery; the good ship Nightflyer holds many of its own secrets.
The Outer Worlds—A Mind Matters Game Review: You must discover the dark secret of the Halcyon space colony, despite the greed and corruption of a handful of powerful corporations. After the raging dumpster fire that Fallout 76 (2018) turned out to be, I hesitated to invest my time and money in another role-playing game (RPG) epic. But I am glad I did.
Simulation: Would a simulated universe even make sense? A well-crafted short sci-fi film suggests, intentionally or otherwise, maybe not. I’ve seen quite a few sci-fi short films over the years and Simulation is certainly one of the better ones. However, beyond that, I’m not sure this film knows what it is; it’s an identity crisis.
Sprites: Will plausible robots replace movie stars? A short film prepares us to think about it.
Terminator: Dark Fate—A Mind Matters Movie Review. Aside from the fact that it felt like a retextured version of Terminator 2, I was constantly being reminded of the film’s obvious political agenda. Movies like Terminator: Dark Fate don’t seem to be made by people who care about the narrative. They seem to think that they need only make something that looks like a movie but acts as a medium for broadcasting their message to the masses.