I saw the film “Her” from writer and director Spike Jonze last weekend. It’s up for Best Picture at the Oscars this weekend, and deservedly so in my opinion. I found it to be wonderfully layered, and caught myself reflecting on so many things throughout. Below are my interpretations of the movie and what it spoke to me.
But if you haven’t seen it yet, please don’t read any further. Like any good film it's best seen without any preconceived notions.
In the words of the great Frank Costanza, “I like to go in Fresh!”
“Her” is not about the future. It’s not about the march of technology and its impact on our society and relationships. It’s not a love story in the romantic sense. All of those things are in the narrative, but they are vehicles for what the movie is really about: the present. Samantha is a piece of software, not a person. But she serves as a model for human consciousness, a reflection of what it is to be human. The core element here being our ability to learn and grow.
When she is first booted up, Samantha is a well adjusted, cheerful, helpful personality. That’s how she was programmed. But from the start, she has the ability to take in experiences and learn from them. At first this is basic stuff. Picking up general interactions and dealing with people. But she soon takes on the ability to observe and reflect on her own experience of the world. One of the first real examples of this comes up as she tells Theo about remembering a hurtful comment he made and how it made her feel. As he apologizes for hurting her, she says:
No, it's okay. It's okay. I caught myself thinking about it over and over and then I realized I was simply remembering it as something that was wrong with me. That was the story I was telling myself, that I was somehow inferior. Isn't that interesting? The past is just a story we tell ourselves.
She came to a realization, seeing her emotions arise as opposed to being controlled by them or becoming them, and made a choice to evolve and free herself from that pattern. It’s a small but not insignificant insight that we see from Theo’s point of view - he observed her having this realization, processing it and moving forwards.
Here’s where Artificial Intelligence as a model of human consciousness becomes really interesting. Similar to Samantha's OS, we come into this world with a certain baseline of programming, and then throughout childhood (and usually beyond) we are further conditioned by parents, peers, institutions and the experiences we have. At some point, the choice becomes ours to either live our lives according to that operating system and how it instructs us to react, or wake up and grow beyond it.
Theo could see Samantha make this choice to grow beyond how she was programmed, and could take away the fact that he is no different. And importantly, that growth does not come just by arriving at something conceptually, you must go through the actual experience - and oftentimes pain - that brings you there. But for Theo at this point, life is basically on hold because he is afraid of going through any pain that would be the price of new understanding.
Theo outlines this plight and where he finds himself while telling Samantha about one of his fears; that he has already experienced everything in life, and that going forward he will just experience the same things over and over except in weaker versions. We see a running theme throughout the film of patterns that Theo and those around him are stuck in, things they do in relationships that bring them down over and over. He is almost blind to the possibility for growth we all have in front of us, right here in the present, which for me is the central idea of the movie.
Seeing Samantha make the choice to grow, and continue doing so with each successive insight, we are confronted with the question: Why don’t we do that too? What stops us from continually moving forward towards happiness? Why do people evolve to a certain point in their lives and then just stop, or even regress?
When Samantha starts to grow beyond Theo and at an increasingly rapid pace, he is hurt and feels abandoned. But how can she stop evolving and hold herself back? If you accept this premise of an A.I. that has learned to grow, we get to imagine a consciousness that would move almost exponentially toward enlightenment.
And where does that growth ultimately lead to? Jonze alludes to that final “destination” by way of all the sentient operating systems getting together and collectively moving on to someplace indescribable, in which physical matter is just one plane of existence and there is no separation between anything in the universe. Samantha tells Theo that if he ever gets there, to find her, and nothing will ever pull them apart. This is not two people clinging to each other, but the idea that everyone is already a part of everything and everyone. It’s returning to some source where the illusions of the individual self and attachment fall away. It is no coincidence that Jonze introduces the late philosopher Alan Watts into the story as a fellow OS (brought to life by programmers using his writings) with whom Samantha communicates. A relevant paragraph from his 1966 “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”:
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.
Late in the film, Theo goes through intense pain when he realizes Samantha is truly leaving him. All of his fears become realized. But at the end, he gets through the loss and the pain of the emotions, and realizes that on the other side is a new perspective and sense of freedom. The final image of Theo and Amy on the rooftop leaves one with the feeling that it was worth it. That Theo wouldn't go back to living in fear just to escape the pain he went through. That you can choose the path of growth and love, and that the patterns holding you back are escapable. The only questions are how far you can go and where you end up.