It’s a double date in a park, or so we’re told. A man, a woman, another man, and his operating system.
Her name is Samantha, and she peeks out of a device in the protagonist’s shirt pocket in one of several could-you-believe-it scenes in “Her,” the stunning near-future romance that asks some of the most nuanced, important questions I’ve seen in film about our relationship with technology.
The premise is goofy when you first hear it. A man falls in love with an operating system that loves him back? Right.
But the movie is serious. Films about the future tend to say more about the present. In our world of digital communities, online dating and on-the-go quips to hundreds of “friends” and “followers,” “Her” poses a challenge: Would connection be any less significant if it happened with something other than a person?
And why, when we stay closer to our phones than anything else, couldn’t technology evolve from a means of connection to an equal participant?
The movie opens on Theodore Twombly — played by Joaquin Phoenix — a heartbroken writer we learn is going through divorce. He works at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, where he sits at a desk and dictates personal ghostwritten letters for busy clients that appear on his screen in their own writing. Nothing about the company’s mission seems challenging or even pioneering, one of several subtle reminders that this is not (yet?) our world.
“I think technology is doing so many things to us,” writer/director Spike Jonze told the L.A. Daily News. “It’s helping us connect and preventing us from connecting. I think that’s the setting for the movie.”
Indeed it is. When Theodore steps outside we catch glimpses of his urban universe. Streets and subways of people who stand together but talk to their devices. It’s not a world of screens so much as voice. Theodore pops in an ear piece to read email, scan the news and stay organized. And when he installs the new artificially intelligent operating system he picked up on the way home, Samantha is born, says hi and proves herself to be much more than a digital assistant.
I felt tense watching this scene and most others that featured Theodore and Samantha in conversation. Later I realized why: I wasn’t sure whether to think of Theodore as being with someone or alone.
And that’s familiar, isn’t it? A person leaned all day over her phone or stuck to her computer can look lonely to someone else. But is that ever how that person feels?
In several scenes, Theodore walks in public with Samantha talking to him via earbud from his pocket, running and looking and shouting and laughing as if he had a real human being by his side. That would be so sad and weird if I saw it in my world, and I waited for an outburst of judgment from his. It never came.
This is why science fiction is awesome.
Human-OS relationships are new in his world the way online dating was once new in ours. At first Theodore hesitates to tell anyone who Samantha is. But when a friend tells her about someone else who’s dating her computer, he says it. “She’s an OS.”
Before long we learn about surrogate bodies to consummate these couplings and then there we are, at that picnic at the park, watching three human beings talk to a camera lens.
That scene would be a parody — an SNL sketch — if the film hadn’t made such a compelling case that this might be exactly where we’re going.
Samantha is a device in more ways than one. It occurred to me halfway through that the movie is not about technology but romantic relationships, and by the end I knew it was not so much about romantic relationships as our relationships with ourselves. To think of Theodore as being alone, even when he is with Samantha, is to see that theme literally. She is not real. She is just a device for his self-reckoning.
Then again, this movie is hardly simple and Samantha is very much her own entity with her own character development. She grows independent of Theodore in a way that reminds me of one friend’s New Year’s resolution to Make Time for Awe.
Samantha has her own self-reckoning, for which Theodore is her device. That’s how you know that whatever Samantha is or isn’t, the relationship between her and Theodore is very much real.
Isn’t that all relationships are, after all? A way for two individuals to make each other better?
A relationship with our computers may be what we need after all.
Mónica Guzmán is a freelance journalist, speaker and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.