her — It’s about her

I wanted to write about a thoughtful sci-fi film “her”, that’s set in the slight future (a neologism that refers to the near future without any negative connotation) available on Netflix.

Her is billed as a sci-fi film, but at its heart, it is a love story, specifically a love story between Theodore(a man) and Samantha(an AI operating system). Before you tut-tut the idea, you might be surprised to know a robust community of people who are in love with their sex dolls exist, and with the advent of AI chatbot technology, companies like RealDolls are equipping these sex dolls with Alexa like capabilities that cater to your “every” whim :) We all know the famous story of Pygmalion, which is a tale told by the Roman poet Ovid who described a sculptor who built the perfect woman and then wished that she could be alive and that she could be his wife. And he prayed to the gods, and then he kissed her, and she came to life. So there are lots of stories around creating a perfect companion for yourself, even if it’s artificial. There’s an interesting corollary in another myth (with a twist), that is of Laodamia. Laodamia is a Greek woman who lost her husband in the Trojan War. She had a bronze replica made of him and took it to bed (probably reminds you of the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back), when her father came to know of this, he forbade her and had that effigy set on fire. So, even artificial love for a woman was examined via a different lens than a man. Apocryphal tales aside, we can see that the act of falling in love with an artificial entity is a story as old as time and the stigma surrounding it, also famously explored in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner (although Harrison Ford’s Deckard forced “relationship” with the Android bordered on sexual abuse).

According to Greeks, Love is classified into Eros — Love as sexual passion, Storge — Love between parents and children, Philia — Love as friendship, Agape — Selfless love. Multiple social psychologists including John Lee (author of The Colours of Love) further classified this into primary and secondary styles but the point is if love is possible between a human and AI (even if the AI has feelings and emotions), can the love be experienced in all the ways possible? Is the body the only impediment to achieve real love between 2 beings? What if love cannot be contained in a box, or what if that box expands to include multiple people? Does that reduce the love between any 2 individuals in the relationship? A friend once explained to me true love and happiness can only be found if you stretch the concept “I” to include others, and keep scaling it until it encompasses the entire universe. Those who have read the teachings of Ramana Maharshi would recognize this concept of finding the “I” (An excellent book called “Hunting the I” by Lucy Cornelssen is available on Amazon to purchase). Once your “I” starts expanding, the silly notions of loving only one at a time, or even a group evaporate and even an oft-uttered question like “Do you love me?” becomes rhetorical. “Her” explores the natural transition of love from a trusting companionship, helping friendship, passionate love (How the protagonists have sex without one of the bodies being absent, I will leave to your imagination until you see the film), finally how the love morphs and evolves into the next logical step. If you thought I’ve been describing the evolution of Theodore, I urge you to pause and consider the title of the film.

Her’s “world-building” (the art of constructing a believable environment as part of the story device that includes set design, props etc.) deserves a lot of credit. To get this story into your head, you want to step into the story and experience the characters, this is done cleverly by minimizing the set design pieces not going overboard. The film as I said is set in the “slight future”, and the world they built is not just refreshing but full of hope. In sci-fi movies, we see 2 kinds of futures, either a tyrannical, dystopian future (Black Mirror, Max Max, Dredd, etc.) or a technology-saturated future that alights human presence. Her takes a delicious third approach, it imagines a future where technology is blended into everyday objects without being pretentious and it heavily borrows elements from the familiar past, without resorting to another tired trope, steampunk(ala The Time Machine). The production design (by K.K. Barrett) is inspired by the aesthetic of Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. The serene style almost makes you nostalgic for the future and leaves you longing. I, for one, am already homesick for this future. Every aspect of the world including the cityscapes (it’s a CG blend of downtown LA and Shanghai’s Pudong district where most of it was filmed), the clothes the characters wear, the modes of transportation, the computers they use, the offices they work in, apartments they live in, all of them are crafted so lovingly yet placed so insouciantly they blend into the narrative. It represents an evolution where technology didn’t render us into drones without anything to do (films like Wall-E imagine), rather let us forget mundane tasks and focus more on feelings, relationships, and things to do with the human connection. This is perfectly embodied in Theodore’s profession: he is a professional letter writer who writes heart-touching letters for clients who wish to express their feelings in an eloquent, touching manner, and these letters are dispatched in hand-written format :) With all the time on hand, what would you do? Would you contemplate, ruminate? You have time for both!

The concept of a personalized Operating System (AI) is introduced in the story that anyone can purchase. The AI adapts to you, to help you in your everyday life, be a companion, and if you want, can develop a relationship with you. Though this is met with certain hostility by some, the society is shown as usually accepting such a relationship. Samantha is introduced as an AI that’s just been constructed and assigned to Theodore, and it passes Turing Test with flying colors in such an obvious manner, it’s not tarried upon like some other movies (Uncanny, Ex Machina comes to mind). Samantha is a curious, loquacious, efficacious AI personality who not only wants to assist Theodore, but wants to assimilate herself into his life, as she is designed to be. The journey of Theodore and Samantha starts once a relationship is formed between them and how it unfolds in unforeseen ways.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore in all his method acting glory where his body language, his slow and hesitant speech patterns, and his introverted personality perfectly suits the character’s need for a connection and the ways in which he tries to find it. We see him as a man who is separated from his wife, has very few friends, and pretty much lives a nomadic, lonely life. His character arc, if you can call it that, is defined by the relationship he has with Samantha. Does the relationship with an AI bring him out of his shell to experience real feelings? You’ll have to see it to find out, but defining Samantha as an object seriously limits Samantha’s character and I will let you watch the film to find it as well. Samantha is voiced (sorry, personified) by Scarlett Johansson, you can see sensuality oozing from her even if she is not on the screen. Other eminent actors including Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde are relegated to the background with roles that are carved out as if specifically made for them. You won’t even feel that these many stars even appeared on screen if you don’t pay attention because as I said, they all blend into the narrative.

Spike Jonze always enthralled us with quirky, insightful comedies and alternative stories that can’t exactly be shelved into a particular genre. I love his earlier films including “Being John Malkovich”, “Synecdoche, New York”, “Adaptation”, and “Where the Wild Things Are”. Each of his films breaks convention and leaves you with many questions but he ameliorates the situation by painting a hopeful picture. Her did win a best original screenplay award at the 2014 Oscars, though it lost the Production Design award to The Great Gatsby (both The Great Gatsby and Her are designed to evoke nostalgia so I guess we still miss the past not the future :)).

The cinematography, background score, music, and even the pace of the narration give you an otherworldly feeling while firmly planting its feet in the present with touches from the past, this is an incredible achievement however you feel about the story. If love between a human and AI is beyond your ken, just enjoy Her as a love story, a story about the evolution of love, the evolution of technology, the evolution of human connection, and it’s perfectly epitomized in this sentence “It would be hard to explain where I am going, but if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing would ever pull us apart”.

Written on Jun 26, 2020




I love to build software and write.

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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