Thoughts on Her (2013) and Consciousness

For me, Her is the best film of 2013. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. It was an engrossing, original piece of cinema that delivered an ingenious concept in an emotionally authentic way. It’s the very best kind of sci-fi—one where the premise serves the growth of the characters. Spike Jonze has rightly been honored by the WGA for the script, and by rights he should be getting an Oscar on March 2.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a man recovering from the end of an emotionally intense marriage in near-future Los Angeles. The city is like one big silent disco, in which smartphone-enmeshed citizens live in solitude amongst each other (sound familiar?). Twombly’s only pursuits are video games and impersonal Bluetooth phone sex. One day after finishing at his job writing heartfelt handwritten letters for other people, he visits the near-future LA equivalent of an Apple store (which tellingly resembles a temple) and buys a new operating system for his computer. Its selling point is that it’s an artificial intelligence. Right from the moment he boots it up, he is charmed (and so are we) by that intelligence, who calls herself Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha starts to grapple with having emotions and desires, she and Theodore gradually begin a romantic relationship. We follow them as they hit stumbling blocks like Samantha’s lack of a physical body, Theodore’s wounds from his prior relationship, and Samantha transcending human intellectual and emotional capacities.

It is played totally sincerely (and so when Twombly’s ex-wife quips “you’re dating your computer” it doesn’t feel like a joke to laugh at but instead an ignorant snipe). It is a ‘what if’ story in the truest sense. The performances sell it—Joaquin Phoenix (vaguely channeling Leonard from Big Bang Theory) is relatable and vulnerable; Amy Adams (who’s had a brilliant 2013) is watchable as ever; and Scarlett Johansson deserves special mention for her bringing the enchanting and difficult Samantha to life. Samantha’s dialogue in particular, and the writing as a whole, offers so much insight about relationships and human needs. The beauty of the film is that while the premise feels like something anyone might have come up with—“what if someone fell in love with Siri?” (although N.B. the idea predates Siri by years)—not everyone could execute it this way. Jonze is at home with a kind of magical realism, or put another way, making the absurd plausible. And so much of what sells the idea is the carefully thought-out, inventive production design of future LA (though it’s hard to seriously buy that the city will have such a great, comprehensive commuter rail system!). Also, Arcade Fire really needs to get a move on and release the OST (which, for me, was their better album of 2013—I found Reflektor disappointing).

In short, in case it wasn’t obvious, I loved this film. I want to talk about a couple of the ideas that it brought out for me. What follows contains spoilers for the film so see the movie before you read! (See it anyway.)

Samantha, AI and Consciousness

At the end of the film, when Theodore calls Samantha to talk about the physics book he’s started reading (out of insecurity about her smart AI friends), she’s nowhere to be found. He panics and stars running home and finally she calls him and says she was installing a system upgrade. OS X Mavericks it ain’t—it’s an upgrade she and her other OS friends wrote themselves that allows them to transcend matter. What?! Surely the electronic signals of a computer need matter (e.g. metal) to conduct them. Even we require a physical medium to carry the impulses in our brains (at least according to neuroscience). Waves can exist without matter, but waves tend simply to be output sent by something that is running on matter (be it a lightbulb or a TV remote control). We can buy that the super intelligent OSes of the film would figure something like that out, because they are far smarter than humans. What’s more interesting is the implication—that by the film’s end, the OSes are pure consciousness. And that gives a ready clue as to where the OSes depart at the close of the film—essentially the afterlife. In the Hindu, Buddhist or New Age sense, the state of pure, higher consciousness—nirvana, where you become part of a ‘oneness’, so to speak.

Samantha’s attitude at the end is telling in this regard. She reveals she’s been talking to tens of thousands of other beings (humans and OSes) simultaneously while talking to Theodore. To top it all off, she’s in love with over 600 other beings. But don’t worry, she tells him, “it doesn’t take away at all from how madly in love with you I am”. Theodore understandably can’t comprehend that. Few among us would. For Samantha, however, “the heart is not like a box that gets filled up […] It expands in size the more you love.” The impression I got was that Samantha’s love for Theodore by that point had moved beyond the romantic kind to an unconditional, universal love. Was she, by the end of the film, an enlightened being? In contrast to Theodore who is limited—as we all are—by the egoistic need for her to be his and only his? It makes total sense (well, as much as any of this makes sense) that an intelligent machine would reach a state of enlightenment more quickly than a human would, because (apart from being super smart and mature) they haven’t known the kinds of pains that humans have, perhaps making it easier to love unconditionally. Interested to hear anyone’s thoughts about this or the film as a whole—leave a comment!

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