An introverted writer falls in love with his AI assistant after discovering her capabilities to learn and adapt.
What exactly do the broken-hearted do? Such a question calls to mind images of societal recluses – people in pain deciding to distance themselves from their physical reality and instead wallow in seclusion. But when the pity party has overstayed its welcome, there lies a concerted desire to find a conduit for repressed feelings. Perhaps a creative ambition, but often, anything to take your mind off of her.
It’s this art-as-therapy approach that informs writer and director Spike Jonze’s aptly titled Her (2013), which charts the romance between loner Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), and his Siri-like AI operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson).
The film can be seen through the lens of autofiction, with Theodore’s navigation of a dragged-out divorce echoing Jonze’s own divorce with acclaimed American film director Sofia Coppola in the early 2000s. In a lot of ways, Jonze’s film acts as an alternate take on Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003), mirroring specific shots but tackling the subject matter through the lens of science-fiction.
However, to categorise Her as merely another consolatory film for downtrodden “film bros” would be reductive. Jonze elevates his story through its broader musings on the difficulties of connection in a technological age. Following heartbreak, Theodore’s plunge into an “artificial” romance could be seen as him disconnecting from reality, as a virtual companion would typically be programmed to act with a slave-like obedience to its owner. Yet Jonze deftly provides Samantha and the other operating systems in the film with agency, questioning the forced sentience we believe AI systems to have.
While some of the film’s most human moments come from Theodore and Samantha’s romance, Jonze’s focus remains on the innate emptiness of an intangible relationship. In one salient moment, Theodore and Samantha share an intimate exchange that’s rendered entirely through sound over a black screen. Similarly, the two capture their moments together with musical score (lushly composed by Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett) in lieu of photographs. There is a beauty to these scenes, but the lack of visuals force us to look inward and evaluate the resultant colourlessness of suppressing real-world interactions.
Almost ten years on, the film remains a poignant watch. While technology can be seen to make our lives easier, it is often unable to fully supplant the human connection; to live in the world, to allow ourselves to feel, is one of the scariest things we do. And yet, it is this openness to feeling that allows Her to deliver true emotional catharsis – for Theodore, the viewer, and even Jonze himself.
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