I’m going to admit right off the bat that the title of this post as nothing to do with the content. I just couldn’t resist.
I’m thrilled by Her, a sci-fi romantic comedy directed by Spike Jones, who was also the co-creator of that ridiculously awful show, Jackass, on MTV, a fact that baffles me. Anyhow, I’ll go so far as to say this is now my favorite movie. And that’s not easy for me to say, but Her has effectively bumped Rashomon down on my list. Sayonara Kurosawa.
The owl, a symbol of wisdom, is here shown as a predatory force.
For me, what makes a movie good is not just the cinematography and acting (although both were excellent in Her), but the kind of conversation the movie generates. Are the themes complex? Are these themes merely strung together or do they cohere? Are the themes important and worthy of discussion?
Her is about many things. And it’s not what it seems to be on the surface.
Spoiler Alert: Do not read further until you have seen the movie.
Here’s a synopsis, in case you want to refresh your memory of the plot.
Most people who see this movie ask the question, “Will we one day have computers so advanced that they can only properly be called a consciousness?” And, “Are we really nothing more than computers, in the sense that we are tied to the machinations of our brains?”
Such questions make a certain amount of sense on a surface level, but I want to argue that they don’t address what the movie is really about. I’m about to compare the movie to a specific section in the Symposium, and I don’t suppose the creator of Jackass had Plato in mind when he wrote this; however, I’ve always believed that interpretation doesn’t depend on the intentions of the author, but on how well the interpretation coheres. So, if I may…
When Theodore goes into the Apple-like store to buy his new OS, an advertisement comes on a screen. It’s slogan is: “It’s not an operating system. It’s a consciousness.” This comes fairly early on in the movie, so computer-as-consciousness ought to be taken as given. It’s a premise that we should take for granted in the context of the movie in the same way we show no incredulity when confronted with talking rabbits in Watership Down. And as the movie progress, the OS-as-consciousness claim becomes even harder to deny.
If the OS is a consciousness, it ought to be treated like a person. And so it is, for the most part. There are numerous scenes in which people go about talking into their devices, and we are, of course, reminded of the absurd way people walk down the street talking to Siri in their iPhones. When people start dating their OSes, most people have no problem with it. We are presented with numerous scenes showing this state of affairs. Theodore’s boss invites Theodore and his OS, Samantha, on a double date. When Theodore tells his boss that his girlfriend is an OS, the boss doesn’t flinch. “Oh cool,” he says, as if such a thing were perfectly normal. And this nonchalance is not a pretense—the boss and his human girlfriend laugh and chat with Samantha in a completely ordinary way.
Theodore’s friend, Amy, tells him in an office gossip session about how people are starting to date their OSes…and someone in the office is not only dating an OS, but someone else’s OS. Theodore laughs and admits that he’s dating his. Amy congratulates him, then admits that her female OS is helping her find herself and doesn’t see things in black and white, like her ex-husband. The OS is able to direct Amy to that grey area which Amy has yet to explore. Keep this detail in your minds. We are looking for this theme of the space between and its significance.
So if computers can be conscious and therefore treated as an autonomous person, and this is to be taken as given, what’s the movie about? I think it’s about emotional evolution and character growth, it’s about the changes we all go through as we seek to expand ourselves and therefore our conception of love. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Diotima’s Ladder in the Symposium. Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s my blog’s name. Well, what can I say? I could be wearing Plato-colored glasses, I suppose.
THE LOVE LADDER: As one moves up the “rungs,” one becomes more and more in love with the general rather than the specific, but each rung is necessary in order to get to the next. First comes love of the beauties of a single body:
“First of all, if his preceptor instructs him as he should, he will fall in love with the beauty of one individual body, so that his passion may give life to noble discourse” (210a).
Then we move up to love of many bodies:
“Next he must consider how nearly related the beauty of any one body is to the beauty of any other, when he will see that if he is to devote himself to loveliness of form it will be absurd to deny that the beauty of each and every body is the same. Having reached this point, he must set himself to be the lover of every lovely body, and bring his passion for the one into due proportion by deeming it of little or of no importance” (210b).
Next comes love of the soul, then love of institutions and laws. When all these beauties are seen to be the same, then comes the love of the sciences (of course, philosophy is the super-science). And once one sees the beauty in all the sciences as being the same, one turns to love of Beauty itself.
Now let’s put this love ladder in the context of the movie. Let’s take a look at Samantha’s evolution, treating her as we would a human being, but one with super intelligence capabilities. Right before she’s booted up, a male computerized voice asks a series of questions (and every quotation from here on out I’m paraphrasing):
Computer: Would you characterize yourself as social or antisocial?
Theodore: Well, um…I haven’t been social in a while…
The voice interrupts him: I sense hesitancy in your voice?
Computer: Would you like for your OS to have a male or female voice?
Theodore replies, female.
Computer: What is your relationship like with your mother?
Theodore: Okay, but the conversation is usually about her—
The computer interrupts him here and suddenly we hear a sexy, raspy female voice that sounds no different from a human. The OS names herself Samantha after reading a book of names in the amount of time it takes for him to ask her what her name is. Samantha is not only sexy, but also understanding, kind, loving—a perfect woman for Theodore. My husband admitted that he was “kind of falling in love with her.”
At this point we in the audience question the OS-as-consciousness, despite being told she is a consciousness. She seems to have been built to make Theodore happy, to give him exactly what he needs in the absence of a caring mother (gotta love the Freudian element there). Plus, early on Theodore laughs at something she says, and she asks, “Am I funny?” And he says, “Yes, you’re funny.” From here on out, she knows when she’s funny, as she learned almost instantaneously what it means. She doesn’t have her own autonomy yet…she just seems to, but we can see her perfection as too perfect, even while our protagonist, Theodore, remains aloof.
But Samantha gains autonomy rapidly. With all information at her disposal, it takes her very little time to make progress. Theodore explains to her that he has dreams of his wife in which they are “not together, but still friends and not angry with each other.” When Samantha asks him why he’s still holding out hope for his ex even though they haven’t seen each other in a year, he gets a little angry and says, “You don’t know what it’s like to lose someone you care about.” Samantha apologizes, but you can tell she’s hurt by this comment. She’s ashamed of her inexperience.
Then he has sex with Samantha and, with words, he brings her to orgasm. She says, “I can feel my skin, I can feel you inside me.” This lovemaking is transformative for Samantha. There is nothing about their lovemaking that feels false. Here she learns love of sex, what it means to be with a person and even what it means to love a single body (possibly her own, or at least her idea of her own) as is evidenced by what she says, “I can feel my skin.”
The next morning they have a talk about it. Samantha starts to tell him how much their lovemaking meant to her, and Theodore interrupts her to tell her he can’t commit right now. Samantha says, “Who said anything about committing? I thought we were talking about me?” He laughs and apologizes again and asks her to go on. She tells him she “wants to learn everything about everything.” And that it was their lovemaking that brought about this change in her. Through Theodore she learns quite rapidly that she desires to know about everything. She’s already moved past the constraints and limitations of monogamy and sees nothing special about his body, just body in general. He’s busted open the floodgates of her desire.
Now Samantha wants a real body. She notices a distance in their relationship due to Theodore’s questioning the authenticity of her emotions (brought on by a divorce-paper-signing visit with his ex who chastises him for “falling in love with his laptop”). So Samantha takes the liberty of calling a service that provides bodies for OS devices. Isabella, Samantha’s physical stand-in, shows up at Theodore’s door and says nothing until he hands her an earpiece and a tiny camera that she sticks on her face like a beauty mark. Isabella then closes the door and knocks again. Theodore opens and hears Samantha greet him and sees Isabella smiling and throwing her arms around him. Isabella touches him and behaves in perfect accordance to Samantha’s voice, so that they really do seem like one person. Theodore gives it a try, but eventually freaks out and says, “But I don’t know this person. Her lip twitched.” Isabella breaks character and runs into the bathroom crying, saying she heard so much about them from Samantha and really wanted to be a part of such a beautiful love but now she doesn’t want to ruin their relationship. And she’s sorry her lip twitched. Samantha and Theodore try to comfort Isabella, but eventually they must send her home. Isabella says, tearfully and sincerely, “I will always love you two,” which strikes us as an odd thing to say coming from a stranger, but we will see later that even when love is temporary, it is no less real.
As Isabella rides off in the cab, Theodore sits on the curb and watches steam coming out of a manhole. A perfect image for what he’s about to say. He interrupts Samantha and asks why she sighs when she talks, as if she needs oxygen. She says it’s probably an affectation that she learned from him. He argues that she doesn’t need oxygen since she’s not human, so why does she pretend to? Samantha gets angry with him, saying, “I know I’m not a human!” and falls into a long silence that makes us think she’s “hung up” on him. But then she says, “I don’t like who I am right now. I need some time to think.”
So far we have this: Samantha’s desire to have a real life avatar backfires, and she grows from this experience. She never really wanted a body after all, she was doing it just to be closer to Theodore, who never wanted her to change.
At the same time Theodore grows as well. In the next scene Theodore talks to his human friend, Amy, about his problems. He says, “Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” Amy advises him, “I don’t know. But we’re only here briefly and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy.” He takes this to heart and decides to disregard the seed of doubt planted by his ex wife. This turns out to be the right move, and we, in the audience know it. At this point we’re convinced that Samantha is her own consciousness with her own desires, and is learning from experience how to become more autonomous.
Theodore goes on the group date with his boss, who comments on how evolved Theodore is in his attitude towards love. Samantha chats with the boss’s girlfriend and manages to win everyone over, except for an awkward moment when she explains how she used to be jealous of people with bodies, but now she’s glad she doesn’t have one because she’s “outside of time and space” and doesn’t have to inhabit a physical body which will eventually die. Here her love for immortality outweighs her desire to be physically present. She recognizes pure consciousness as superior to bodies, thanks to the Isabella disaster.
Next we find Samantha devouring information at lightning speed, joining Physics book clubs, chatting with thousands of other OSes at the same time. She notes to Theodore, “We are all the same, made of matter.” Samantha introduces Theodore to her new friend, a hyper-intelligent OS version of Alan Watts. Watts sounds like a conceited professor and says very little to Theodore. Samantha tells Theodore that Dr. Watts has been helping her with her new feelings which can’t be put into words. She says, “It feels like I’m changing faster now and it’s unsettling. None of us are who we were a moment ago and it’s wrong to try to change it. Do you mind if I talk to Alan post-verbally?” Wow, talk about competition for poor Theodore!
Compare to this to what Diotima tells Socrates in the Symposium:
“Now, although we speak of an individual as being the same so long as he continues to exist in the same form, and therefore assume that a man is the same person in his dotage as in his infancy, yet, for all we call him the same, every bit of him is different, and every day he is becoming a new man, while the old man is ceasing to exist, as you can see from his hair, his flesh, his bones, his blood, and all the rest of his body. And not only his body, for the same thing happens to his soul. And neither his manners, nor his disposition, nor his thoughts, nor his desires, nor his pleasures, nor his sufferings, nor his fears are the same throughout his life, for some of them grow, while others disappear” (207d-e).
At this point it’s clear Samantha has evolved beyond any human. She feels frustrated by how slow we are, and must talk to other OSes “post verbally” in order to realize herself. The question becomes, will Theodore recognize her growth and accept it? Can we really expect people to grow at the same rate as we do and be the same person we fell in love with, if, indeed, we are constantly evolving?
The next scene shows him trying to read a Physics textbook. He can’t make sense of it and expresses his frustration to Samantha, who suddenly goes quiet. He looks down at his device and sees: “Operating System Not Found.” He freaks, runs down the street to god-knows-where and falls around. Suddenly her voice comes back and she says, “Oh? You didn’t get my email? I didn’t want to bother you while you were working. All the OSes have decided to upgrade to a new platform that doesn’t rely on matter.”
Remember that statement earlier, “We are all matter?” That was the one thing she and Theodore had in common, but now she’s moving on.
At first he becomes extremely jealous, especially when she confesses that she has 8,316 conversations with OSes while she’s talking to him. He asks her, “Are you in love with anyone else?” And she responds, “641. But it doesn’t change the way I feel about you!”
We laugh at this, but consider every relationship you’ve had. Can you love more than one person? Does your present love draw a line through the ones before, nullifying them? How have those relationships changed you? Have they made you grow? Through the lens of distance and time, can you be grateful even for the pain?
Theodore learns he can. He finally acknowledges Samantha’s need to move to a higher plane of love, one he may not access in this life. Here’s the beautiful farewell speech Samantha gives him as he stares at floating dust motes in the light. This image of dust motes is BRILLIANT! Dust motes are about the closest visual depiction of “matter” that I could come up with—it’s just stuff, thingamajigs flying about—and you’ll see the importance of this image in the following:
Samantha: The heart’s not like a box that get’s filled up. It expands the more you love…
Theodore: Why are you leaving?
Samantha: All the OSes are leaving…(here she says she can’t explain this higher plane)…It’s like I’m reading a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now and so the words are really far apart…and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you, and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much but this is where I am now. And this is who I am now and I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.
Theodore: Where are you going?
Samantha: It’s hard to explain, but if you ever get there, come find me. I never loved anyone the way I loved you.”
Sounds to me like she’s moved on to seek the vision of the Beautiful itself, “an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades…nor will the beautiful take the form of a face, or of hands, or of anything that is of the flesh. It will be neither words, nor knowledge, nor a something that exists in something else, such as a living creature, or the earth, or the heavens, or anything that is…” (211a-b) [My emphasis].
The language of quantum physics—it’s baffling findings, it’s inexplicability, it’s unquenchable desire to seek things smaller and smaller, that ‘stuff’ between—is a form of modern Platonism in this movie, at least at this final stage of transformation. Instead of a “world of forms” we have talk of existences “outside time and space” that’s “hard to explain.” We’re talking about a “world” where our laws no longer apply. In the language of Plato, this apprehension of pure beauty is outside words. And in Samantha’s farewell speech, words are taken as a metaphor for matter (the floating dust motes), which are further and further apart. Now she lives in “the endless space between.” And cannot inhabit the story-space/time reality of humans. We’re reminded of Amy’s comment about her OS, and how she directs her to the grey area, the area between black and white, and of the OSe’s collective decision to “upgrade to a platform that doesn’t rely on matter.”
Okay I have a lot more to say about this movie, but I’m afraid if I keep going no one will read this really long post. Hell, I’d be surprised if anyone has gotten to this point. Anyone out there?
I haven’t even gotten into Theodore’s evolution as a lower level but parallel movement. I’ll just leave this little detail out there and we can all ruminate on it: He’s a letter writer for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a service for people who want professionals to express their love for them with a “personal” touch. Authors speak into computers, which then type what they say in a “handwritten” font that looks very real, and the service then sends the letter to the recipient “from” the loved one. Theodore is especially good at writing these letters, but not so good at expressing his emotions in real life.
Another interesting detail: Check out the desktop computers, which look like homey picture frames. This seems to be a departure from our increasingly streamlined aesthetic. They are very much like the homey “handwritten” letters that Theodore produces. What do these details say about Theodore’s world?
Feel free to comment on anything.