Technology and Humanity in the film ‘Her’

 

We live in a world where technology is rapidly occupying more and more of our everyday lives; we wake up in the morning using an alarm set on our cellphones, we remember our friends’ birthdays by a notification  from Facebook, we navigate to new places using Google Maps on our phones – and it’s never been easier. It is somewhat alarming, yet largely unnoticed by most, how rapidly technology is progressing and consuming almost every aspect of our lives. So, is it really too far-fetched to imagine a romantic relationship developing between human and Operating System, as depicted in the film Her? Perhaps yes, it is entirely far-fetched and goes against all that we understand about technology and human nature – and how these two things differ. However, if you consider that before roughly forty years ago it was perhaps considered highly unlikely that there would come a time when we would have a pocket size device that could basically perform any function we could possibly need, then perhaps this idea is less far-fetched than it seems. The possibilities of technology seem endless, and the speedy progression is almost too difficult to track. I remember my mom telling me about the day her office received their first fax machine after it had just launched, she recalls how the entire office stood around this device for hours, bewildered by the fact that it was producing documents sent from elsewhere. In my entire lifetime, which mind you is a measly twenty one years, I have never witnessed the use of a fax machine nor have I heard many people speak of its use – simply because we have already progressed onto better and easier means of sharing documents. That is just one example of the speedy progression of technology, and how limitless it really is.

Spoiler Alert: this post is a thorough analysis and review of the film Her, thus there are spoilers aplenty. You have been warned.

From the very beginning of the film we see that it is a somewhat futuristic setting, however it may not be futuristic in the extremely far-fetched way in which Back to the Future was in 1985, but still futuristic in a modest sense of the word. The city setting in the beginning of the film is described as “slightly in the future” in the film script. So while there are many aspects which are not entirely new or shocking to us modern day viewers, there are aspects which are somewhat unfamiliar – such as the video game Theodore often plays. It is described in the film script as; “a 3-D hologram that fills his apartment”. So from the outset of the movie we are given an indication of the advancement of technology in the film, and also the role it plays.

The opening scene is of Theodore at his work, ‘handwrittenletters.com’, which in itself depicts the irony of the role of technology. His job is to write faux handwritten letters for other people to their loved ones, thus acting as an outside force of intimacy between people. This brings us to the idea of human desire, intimacy and love, which is significant if you consider that Theodore is depicted as a seemingly lonely and isolated character, and a large amount of the screen time is of him without any human company.

This office scene provides us with snippets of other letters being written by employees at ‘handwrittenletters.com’, and we hear one in particular read as follows; “Dear Nana, Thank you so much for my truck. I love the colour and I play with it every day…” and this is written out in five year old handwriting – thus suggesting that even young children turn to technology as an easier, more efficient way of completing a task. It is significant that this task is writing letters, which has always been an intimate form of communication between people, as this provides the idea that technology is forging intimacy.  The things we see written about in the letters are the following;

  1. Anniversary
  2. Thank you
  3. Congratulations
  4. Condolences

I don’t think I’m alone in saying this, but I would be gravely offended if anyone in my life paid another person to type a handwritten letter regarding any of those topics. I don’t care how terrible your writing skills are, “I love you” is better coming from your own heart than someone who does this as their job. So from the beginning of the film we are being asked to question the relationship between intimacy and technology.

So let’s move on to discuss this notion further.

Intimacy and Technology

Let’s take it back a few steps and look at the main aspect of this film that I am focusing on in this post. Humanity and technology, and the relationship between these two things as portrayed in the film. So, let’s zoom in on humanity for a second, what exactly is it? Well essentially humanity is comprised of the things that make us human – our capacity to love, desire, empathize, feel intimacy, as well as our intellect and intuition. Alright, so let’s move forward with this notion of desire. As I have already mentioned, it’s not difficult to see that Theodore is a pretty lonely guy in majority of the movie. In one particular scene Theodore is lying in bed as he has flashbacks of his marriage at its happy times. We get a sense that this leaves him feeling sad and lonely, and in response to this he goes to a chat room to search for a female to potentially have phone sex with. The female voice is completely anonymous, coming to him from an online service delivered into his ear piece. So here we have an instance where Theodore, in complete loneliness, turns to technology to fulfill his desire for human company. This doesn’t end very well, as she states; “choke me with that dead cat”, before Theodore is able to climax. So essentially he receives no real gratification from this endeavor. The next encounter that Theodore has with a woman is indeed in real life. However it was a blind date set up by a friend, and his actual first encounter with her is digitally – as he scrolls through images of her, and learns information about her from his operating system Samantha. This also doesn’t end well and he receives no gratification from this woman either, as she won’t have sex with him without the promise of commitment. So we see this lonely man, searching for a way to not be lonely, but without success. Until…

Alright, so let’s move on to the star of the show – Samantha. This is Theodore’s operating system who, as was promised by the advert is “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you and knows you”. We witness this in many instances throughout the film, for example when she asks Theodore what is wrong, and he responds with “how do you know something is wrong”. The voice combined with the conversations they have are so human like that the viewers almost expect to see Scarlett Johansson standing there in front of Theodore; however she is confined to the screen of his computer. We witness their relationship progress rapidly, as they go out on dates and she helps him in the difficult times. So we can see here that Theodore reached out to this operating system in his attempt to overcome his loneliness, once again. We have witnessed this attempt in all the instances previously mentioned, and he even states to Samantha that he desperately wants to “fill this tiny little black hole in my heart for a moment”. The peak of this is portrayed in the scene where they have sex, right after his failed blind date when he is drunk and extra lonely. Yes, Theodore and his operating system have sex. Here we have a complete breaking down of the boundary between man and technology, as they engage in the most intimate act known to humans. That’s pretty intense right? So we’re left questioning how that’s possible. How does an operating system feel sexual pleasure without any sexual organs? But we see Theodore, who at this point is not questioning anything at all.

Let’s fast forward to where things start to fall apart. Obviously skin-less, voice reliant sex can lose its thrill after a while and Samantha senses this. She hires a surrogate, who basically let’s them use her body to forge that physical gap between Samantha and Theodore – the gap which is becoming more and more acknowledged by both of them. This episode doesn’t go well however, and completely freaks Theodore out. Theodore voices some underlying thoughts he’s been dwelling on about Samantha, as he goes off on a tangent about the fact that she inhales and exhales. “It’s not like you need oxygen or anything… They’re people, they need oxygen. You’re not a person”. So we see that this gap between them, man and machine, is one that is inevitably going to cause problems and cannot be filled by any means.

This is extended to the very end of the film, where it all ends. His relationship with Samantha was the only one which temporarily filled the black hole in his heart, even with all its complications, but of course the film wants to remind us that it isn’t always the best option to choose the digital world over the real world. Theodore is left alone, once again, as he finds out he was not the only person Samantha loved, and also as he finds out that the operating systems are leaving to a place outside of the physical world. So essentially he received no real gratification from this experience, because he is in the same position except slightly more heartbroken than before. So what was the point?

Conclusion to all of this babbling:

The final scene is of Theodore next to his friend Amy, as they sit and view the city skyline. I want to conclude by saying that this is where the real intimacy lies, not in any sexual way, but in the warmth of his friend’s hand on his own. That is intimacy, that is love. His loneliness of the entire movie is done away with in this very moment. He has searched for human companion to fill the black hole in his heart through technology, but without any success. Yet it has taken him all of that hurt, pain, heartbreak to realize that he has had it this entire time – embodied in Amy. I would say that the ending of the movie isn’t sad – even though he has been abandoned by his love – we see that he finds closure with his ex-wife and writes her a letter of apology. This intimate form of communication that he has been doing for other people, he is now doing for Catherine, to let her know that he will always love her. So it ends on a somewhat hopeful note – without Samantha, Theodore can gain his humanity and begin to develop deep intimacy and love in the only way possible. Human to human.

Overall, I think I enjoyed analyzing the film more than I enjoyed watching it. However, that does not mean it is not a good movie, on the contrary I think that points to its greatness – as it has so much more to offer than what we see on the screen. In fact, I would say it’s a really good movie. You are forced to feel with the movie, through the beautiful music, the words, the images. The film looks at issues which are very serious and very real to us, it is not simply a science fiction film about far-fetched, unrelated things. It’s about what it means to be human, and how that meaning fits in a digital world. Spike Jonze takes the traditional love story, and the traditional science fiction plot and subverts them.

In three words; it is beautiful.

Thank you for reading 🙂

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