When I was reviewing the Orville, Season Three, I spent a lot of time complaining about the robot-love subplot which consumed far too much of the series. I will probably always find the idea of such a relationship ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean the concept can’t be explored in a thoughtful way. One such thoughtful exploration is the movie Her, where a man falls in love with his AI operating system. Unlike the Orville, which demands that the viewer take the relationship seriously, almost going so far as to call the viewer a bigot if they don’t get on board with the fantasy, Her leaves everything open-ended, treating the whole idea of a man and robot falling in love as a what-if scenario. The movie plays the situation straight, but at the same time, drops subtle hints that something is amiss. It’s almost like a story with an unreliable narrator. This isn’t the best analogy because there are no moments where fantasy mixes with reality, leaving the viewer to guess which is which, nor are there any indications that the protagonist is lying to the audience, but the way the main character interprets an event, might not always be how the viewer sees the situation.
Her leaves the moral implications of such a relationship unexplored, and rather, focuses on the plausibility of it. Sometimes the viewer might be convinced the entire relationship is fake; other times, the relationship seems real. However, what’s fascinating about the movie is the film’s commitment to the protagonist’s perspective. The hints pushing the viewer to one conclusion or the other are easy to miss if he or she isn’t paying attention. Personally, I loved this aspect of the movie the most. The Orville used things like dialog and music to manipulate the viewer into agreeing with the writer’s conclusions. Her uses these same elements to indicate the protagonist’s mood and emotions, and the film is remarkably strict about this. There are no moments where music or lighting or any cinematic tricks are used to imply that the viewer is meant to feel or think something contrary to what the protagonists thinks or feels. When there are philosophical conversations, if there is music playing, you don’t notice it. This movie tells you nothing about how you should feel. Your job as the viewer is to sit there and draw your own conclusions. It might be easy to misconstrue the movie’s intentions because there is a lot of serene and melancholy music playing throughout the film that could give you the impression that the writers are affirming the relationship, but the viewer must remember the music is reflecting the protagonist’s state of being. It’s more important to pay close attention to the dialog and the exact order of events. If the viewer does that, the story becomes much more complex. This was refreshing to see after watching Orville, Season Three, which was really a “love is love” sermon disguised as a television series.
Love Letters and Longings
But enough bragging about a good movie. The best way to demonstrate what I mean is to explore the story. The film opens with our main character, Theodore, who narrates letters. Most of them are love letters. If the viewer misses this detail, he or she runs the risk of misunderstanding the rest of the film. I can’t stress the importance of this one fact enough, and I believe, the writer of this film, Spike Jonze, doesn’t want the viewer to miss this detail either. He repeatedly has one character, Paul, brag about how good a writer Theodore is. Paul could’ve been any cliché best friend who serves as a comic relieve, but I believe Paul’s infatuation with Theodore’s writing was added on purpose, because as the AI begins to develop this intimate relationship with Theodore and even begins to initiate interactions later on in the film, one must remember that the Operating System has built a psychological profile of Theodore, and that profile can only grow over time because the AI has access to all of Theodore’s letters. Another important point to remember is that Theodore is, on some level, living vicariously through these letters. He is in the middle of a divorce at the start of the film, and is in effect, living out the romance he wants to have with his ex-wife through these letters, yet another detail the AI is bound to pick up.
It quickly becomes apparent that Theodore doesn’t like his job. We watch him go through his day, and this monotony continues until he comes across a new “Operating System” in a mall. He buys the OS and loads it onto his computer.
Now, here is where we get the first hint that there is more going on than the commercial for the Operating System claimed. The OS was advertised as something like a secretary, but as the OS is loading onto Theodore’s computer, it asks him some rather strange questions. The OS asks him about his relationship with his mother, whether he considers himself to be social or antisocial, and even tells Theodore that his tone indicates hesitancy, which tells the viewer that the OS isn’t just reading Theodore’s words. It’s analyzing his mannerisms and building a psychological profile based not only on what he says but how he says it.
“Samantha,” the Human Sounding AI System
When the OS is finished loading, a female voice speaks and calls itself Samantha. Right away, Theodore is impressed by how human Samantha sounds. The film tries to explain this, but the details are somewhat hazy. Samantha tells Theo that she is made of the “DNA” of her programmers, and later, she and some other Operating Systems will construct an AI based on a dead historical figure using his own psychological profile. Now, I believe that Samantha is just a computer, but remember, the writer isn’t giving his opinion here either way. However, if I’m right, then the idea is that the AI is not just reacting to what Theodore says but is making decisions based on what it believes Theodore will like or dislike, and these deductions are all based his profile that has been constructed and is constantly being updated as he interacts with the AI.
The only drawback to Samantha’s explanation is that the exact nature of this psychological profile is not entirely explored, but I won’t fault the movie for this since getting into the weeds of psychology might distract from the story, and it would also allude to the writer’s opinion of whether or not Samantha is truly conscious. It’s probably best to keep the question of what comprises the psychological profile vague. We’ll look at what happens after Theodore uploads Samantha in the next review.