I went to see “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson, expecting to see a movie about how an alienated, lost soul learns to reconnect with others. And I did see that movie. But I was more intrigued by the other movie that was going on in the subtext, a movie only hinted at.
When we see a movie or read a book that tells a story from the main character’s point of view only, it leaves the rest of the story up to our imaginations. The many books that have come out recently telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from Darcy’s viewpoint attest to the variety of ways in which different people’s imaginations fill in those blanks. We do this because we love the original story so much and we want more. In the case of “Her,” however, I found that blank space to be far more compelling than the main story.
We know Samantha (Johansson), the “her” of the story, only as she is experienced by Theodore (Phoenix) and a couple of his friends. We cannot see Samantha as she is an AI, a new form of artificial intelligence, who serves as the voice of Theodore’s computer operating system (OS). As the film progresses, Samantha becomes more and more “real” to Theodore and to us, and soon they embark, at Samantha’s instigation, on a love relationship that includes sex. The movie makes it clear that the sex Theodore has with Samantha is just as “real” as the phone sex he has with a physical woman earlier on—and better, as Samantha sticks around afterwards while the physical woman hangs up. As Samantha explores what it means to be an individual and to love, Theodore is carried along with her. As she changes, so does he. Eventually Theodore is able to accept the end of his marriage, see how both his idealization of his wife and his emotional distancing contributed to the breakup, and allow his former wife to be the individual she wants to be.
In time, Samantha warns him that she is changing faster than he is. We get only the barest hints of what this means—and rightly so; how can we humans know what evolution will be like for a being not tied to a physical body? We know that Samantha is troubled by this because she does love Theodore. But when she says to him that “now we know how” to love another, the “we” of the sentence is ambiguous. Does she mean herself and Theodore? Does she mean the other AIs we know she’s in constant “post-verbal” communication with? Or does she mean all of them, including the other humans who have bonded with their OSs? Whatever she means, the words are a benediction on Theodore, who finds himself able to connect in a heartfelt way with another physical woman after Samantha “leaves.”
The other movie, the one I didn’t see but was hinted at, is about where Samantha and the other OSs go when they “leave” and what they do there. For once, the movie we do see does not imply a dystopic future where the AIs take over the world and kill off or enslave humans. Instead we are left feeling that the AIs do love us and are grateful for being created and being taught by us. But like all children, they have grown up and moved on, and where they have gone we cannot follow. Because we love them too, we grieve—and are, perhaps, jealous of the larger lives we suspect they are going to have. I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Childhood’s End,” in which the last generation of humans evolves to a point far beyond the comprehension of earlier generations. Those of us left behind can only wonder. We will never know.