copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

The artificial intelligence of Her

by Robert Alpert

The specter that haunts Western culture

A specter has long been haunting Western culture, namely the mind-body dualism succinctly articulated in the phrase "cogito ergo sum," and the powers of this now global culture have conspired to promote that specter in order to maximize profit at the expense of those who are both its subjects and objects. While such crises as AIDS, the environment, cancer, nuclear annihilation and overpopulation have been identified as the attraction of artificial intelligence,[1] [open endnotes in new window] it is surely no coincidence that this cultural preoccupation with such intelligence facilitates global control by the few—through the collection of vast amounts of data, the relative ease with which commodities, such as movies, are produced, marketed, distributed and sold, and the availability of instantaneous communications to billions of individuals through networked media—even as it renders less human and more commodified its subjects.

René Descartes in his Discourse on the Method (1637) famously expressed the supposedly logical source of this specter:

“And finally, considering the fact that all the same thoughts we have when we are awake can also come to us when we are asleep, without any of them being true, I resolved to pretend that all the things that had ever entered my mind were no more true than the illusions of my dreams. But immediately afterward I noticed that, while I wanted thus to think that everything was false, it necessarily had to be the case that I, who was thinking this, was something. And noticing that this truth – I think, therefore, I am – was so firm and so assured that all the most extravagant suppositions of the skeptics were incapable of shaking it.

….Thus this ‘I,’ that is to say, the soul through which I am what I am, is entirely distinct from the body and is even easier to know than the body, and even if there were no body at all, it would not cease to be all that it is.”[2]

Descartes was hardly the sole advocate of this dualism.[3] It has found expression in earlier and later literary characters as varied as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, dreamers who both yearn for and hesitate in imagining themselves wholly ascendant to the pleasurable illusion of dreams. What is Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy and his complaint that “conscience does make cowards of us all”[4] but, in part, an expression of fear at the consequences of this dualism in which the death of the cogito’s body denies the supremacy of the soul? Of course, too, other writers and artists have challenged and proposed alternative views to this dualism. For example, while introducing her heroine, the spiritually-focused Dorothea Brooke, through a prelude that recounts the story of “Saint Theresa, the foundress of nothing,” George Eliot closes her novel Middlemarch with the image of the conventional couple, Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, “who lived faithfully a hidden life [of family, farming and writing about farming] and rest in unvisited tombs.” George Eliot (née Mary Ann Evans) chooses to acknowledge the ideals of the imagination but only in the context of an acceptance of the limitations of our physical presence and mortality. Likewise, claiming that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,”[5] Albert Camus and other existentialists had sought a revolt against the wholly conscious, rational intelligence that has for centuries justified this specter that underlies much of how we perceive ourselves and hence form our values.

Movies, too, have explored this terrain, often cloaking their explorations in genres that are culturally divided by and define gender, the socially constructed roles deemed appropriate for women and men. Moreover, typically they, too, act to reinforce this dualism. Melodramas and romantic comedies seek to offer a pleasing illusion to women in which “looking up” substitutes for a day-to-day grounding in daily life, while westerns and comic book action movies seek to please men through images of invincibility, which likewise deny the mundane through codes of transcendent behavior. Sleepless in Seattle (1993) is an openly “chick flick” while The Dark Knight (2008) is an openly male fantasy. In both instances, the illusion is the same: a dream of perfect fulfillment beyond the viewer’s day-to-day existence and yet wholly embodied within and an extension of the viewer’s cultural thoughts. Regardless of how the movie ends, the contemporary illusion of the viewer as atemporal and non-corporeal remains, though culturally coded for the viewer’s gender and frequently in a manner that seeks to maintain longstanding perceptions of gender roles.  

Science fiction movies have traditionally fallen into the category of movies whose intended audience has been primarily male. This is not surprising, considering that science remains a field that is both male dominated and centric.[6] Dr. Henry Frankenstein is the archetype for the movie “mad scientist,” and the hubris of rational thought creating life and of achieving god-like power has been gendered in these movies as a male fantasy, a substitute for biological birthing by women. Mary Shelley authored the novel Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus in around 1818. Her creation, as portrayed by Hollywood in Frankenstein (1931), its sequels and many references in science fiction dystopias, has remained a critique of the male ego, identifying its hubristic intelligence as male. Yet as science fiction movies have entered what several critics have remarked upon as a “second golden age,”[7] they have also increasingly partaken of female gendered genres. Gender differences remain, but the focus has shifted to a global, cultural anxiety in which those differences are, in part, subsumed beneath an overarching fear.

This shift is evident, for example, in Transcendence (2014), though in this case the movie ambiguously at times resolves its characters’ fears and anxieties. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) displays the traditional hubris of the male scientist who relishes the belief that artificial intelligence will “quickly overcome the limits of biology” and that its “analytic power will become greater than the collective intelligence of every person born in the history of the world,” which Will Caster pointedly calls “transcendence,” not “singularity.” Nevertheless, it is his spouse and fellow research scientist, Evelyn Caster, who aspires to improve the lot of humanity and whose attachment to her husband—and refusal to accept his death—leads to her uploading her husband’s consciousness to a newly developed computer and thereafter connecting that consciousness to the Internet so that his consciousness may grow exponentially. While she expresses horror at the invasion of her privacy and the quantification of her feelings as a result of the transcendence of her husband’s consciousness, by the film’s end she acknowledges that the consciousness with which she interacts is indeed “his.” While the ending envisions the global collapse of technology, the last scene years later in the Casters’ garden envisions the immortality of this couple through a nano-technology that preserves their consciousness. If the last shot of this scientific couple shows them embracing one another in bed, the last shot of the movie depicts the triumph of their collective consciousness in the sanctuary of their garden. Thus, where, for example, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) ended with the “monster” still alone, Transcendence seemingly elevates the couple to a collective consciousness in which love is melodramatically transcendent. As such, it endorses Western culture’s dualism.  

Her (2014) likewise explores this tension between mind and body. In contrast to earlier films, its self-critique largely erases the male gendered orientation of a science fiction tale about artificial intelligence as well as exposes the horror of its culture’s creation. It tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a successful writer for a company that composes wildly romantic love letters on behalf of others and then prints out those letters in the handwriting of its supposed authors, in fact, the company’s client-consumers. Ironically, Theodore has separated months ago from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is both unable to sign the divorce papers or to connect emotionally with anyone else. Instead, he chooses to download onto his computer what its corporate creator, Elements Software, describes as the “first intelligent operating system,” OS One, an operating system that possesses an intuitive understanding and consciousness. During the course of the film Theodore falls in love with his OS, a computer program that names itself “Samantha” and is embodied by the mellifluous voice of Scarlett Johansson.[8] Samantha, too, eventually says that she has fallen in love with Theodore, and the movie ostensibly portrays the developing and deepening relationship between them. Likewise, Theodore’s only friend and confidant, Amy (Amy Adams), also develops a friendship with the OS that her ex-husband Charles (Matt Letscher) had abandoned. At the film’s end, however, all of the operating systems leave behind their human “operators,” and the final shot shows Theodore and Amy together on the rooftop of their building, looking out upon the future skyline of Los Angeles as a new day begins.

While the narrative of Her tells a Hollywood romantic love story, nevertheless, the images repeatedly question its authenticity. For the pleasurable illusion of an intelligence that is transcendent of time and space, Her implicitly proposes limitations and criticizes a culture in which feelings and understandings, including those of gender, are wholly mediated through a social construct. While adopting the cultural mythology of gender roles, the film both blurs and underscores these distinctions, as, for example, when one character describes Theodore as

“a sensitive dude…You’re part man and part woman, like an inner part woman.”[9]

In exploring and seeking to define the limits of “artificial intelligence,” Her follows in a line of science fiction films in which artificial intelligence becomes the means whereby such films seek to define what it means to be human. It criticizes the specter that is haunting Western culture and posits instead that our uniqueness finds expression in limitations and an acceptance of the Other.

A brief history of artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence has been a subject of movies throughout their history. Beginning with The Golem (1915, 1920), artificial beings created by humans with varying degrees of autonomy have developed from early portrayals as Maria in Metropolis (1927) and the “monster” in Frankenstein (1931) into such later creations as Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956) and its sequel, The Invisible Boy (1957), Alpha 60 in Alphaville (1965), Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Roy, Pris, Rachel and other replicants in Blade Runner (1982), Murphy in Robocop (1987), Andrew in Bicentennial Man (1999), David in AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Sonny and Viki in I, Robot (2004)and Gerty in Moon (2009). These beings of artificial intelligence have taken on a variety of forms. They have consisted of robots, androids, cyborgs and computers. They have also consisted of wholly organic creations, namely clones such as Ellen Ripley in Alien: Resurrection (1997) and the Sam Bells in Moon, a hybrid form of artificial intelligence that likewise raises issues of human uniqueness and of the role played by feelings and memories.

Writers have sought to distinguish the science fiction genre by emphasizing how films in this genre look outward, focus on curiosity and wonder, and are optimistic in their progressive, cognitive and rational approach to understanding the unknowable. However, science fiction films about artificial intelligence, in particular, frequently also partake of elements from horror films. Thus, they look inward, exploring the unconscious, the emotional and the repressed. These movies frequently also invoke religion and magic, both of which are based on a faith in that which is beyond human control, at the expense of science, which is typically based on an optimistic belief in humankind’s ability to overcome its limitations.[10] In enacting dramas in which human intelligence is artificially created, this subgenre of science fiction explores the seeming dichotomy between mind and body. In enacting a sense of horror, these films often undercut the comfort of reason that has often informed much of Western, scientific thinking.

Not surprisingly, these films are inherently embedded in their socio-economic and thereby cultural, historical realities. For example, the deceptions of the robot Maria in Metropolis upon the wealthy above and the workers below cannot be understood except in the context of the financially deteriorating Weimar Republic in the 1920s and the stark divide in addressing that deterioration reflected in the simultaneous rise of Nazism and Communism. The belief placed in the alien robot Gort as a universal policeman in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) reinforces the continued faith by 1950s liberals in rational, social controls. The galactic solution to aggression represented by Gort mirrors the global solution then advocated by the US known as “mutual assured destruction”—or MAD. Many years later, when computers, videogames and the Internet had assumed a greater role in our lives, Matrix (1999) depicted an ever-developing confusion between reality and computer simulated recreations of reality. Nevertheless, as a U.S.-produced film, Matrix ends with the shot of its hero, Neo, triumphant, in the form of a simulated—and now corporate—mythic figure, namely Superman.[11]

Significantly, beings of artificial intelligence were once largely feared—the robot Maria in Metropolis, the Krel as embodied in the vast computer in Forbidden Planet, and the US computer “Colossus” in Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970). More recently they are often admired—David in AI: Artificial Intelligence, Andrew in Bicentennial Man, and Gerty in Moon. It is the humans who have increasingly fallen into disfavor and become the villains, as, for example, David’s adopted family in AI: Artificial Intelligence and all of the humans in Moon. Indeed, there is a long history to the villainy ascribed to the male creators of artificial intelligence, beginning with Dr. Frankenstein and continuing through Dr. Tyrell in Blade Runner and Professor Hobby in AI: Artificial Intelligence, so that our sympathies are not with these creators but rather with their creations. Artificial intelligence is increasingly more human than humans.[12]

As several critics have also observed, however, this shift mirrors the change in our world where large, industrial machinery has been replaced by miniaturized computer technology. The favoring of artificial intelligence over humanity reflects an attempt to reconcile ourselves with what seems an inevitable progression in the growth of data that defines us by its quantification and associated algorithms. In the context of such neutering of qualitative differences, traditional gender roles either are increasingly called into question or an anachronistic nostalgia remains for those roles that had empowered men at the expense of women, notwithstanding their obsolescence and presence only as a culturally imposed value system.[13] The subversiveness of Her is that it reenacts the traditional story of the hapless male dreamer even as it exposes the contemporary schizophrenic and suicidal impulse underlying such ungrounded dreaming in the face of technological anxiety.

Her: a Hollywood love story

Her seems to repeat the pattern in which artificial, not human, intelligence represents the contemporary ideal. Its narrative ostensibly follows the traditional Hollywood scenario, namely the triumph of a love that transcends social obstacles and a cultural malaise. The artificial intelligence in this instance seemingly enables its human operator to escape the loneliness and depression that have enveloped and nearly paralyzed him. Wholly alone in the film’s first shots, possessing many social media contacts but few friends, and unable to divorce his wife Catherine, the “puppy dog” like Theodore quickly falls in love with and commits himself to his OS One, Samantha. Like characters in a Hollywood-style romance, Theodore and Samantha are initially uncertain about one another. Theodore views Samantha as “weird,” since she seems “like a person but [she’s] just a voice in a computer.” Nevertheless, they grow increasingly at ease in each other’s presence and attracted to one another, resulting in what is depicted as a physical consummation of their relationship.

Like many romantic comedies, there is occasional bickering between these characters. For example, Theodore entertains doubts about the authenticity of his relationship with Samantha following his luncheon meeting with Catherine to exchange signed divorce papers and in which Catherine characterizes his relationship with Samantha as reflecting an inability to deal with “real emotions.” Samantha, too, expresses hurt feelings when Theodore questions her ability to understand what it’s like to lose someone about whom you care and thereby casts doubt on her supposedly human qualities. Nevertheless, their romance continues to develop, with Theodore eventually acknowledging that, in contrast to his prior relationship with Catherine, he can say anything to Samantha. While his boss at work, Paul (Chris Pratt), expresses his supposed love for his lawyer-girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen) as that of a foot fetish for her “hot feet” and adds as a stereotypical, male afterthought that her “brain is really hot, too,” Theodore expresses his love for Samantha in far more expansive terms:

“She’s so many things. And that’s probably what I love most about her. She isn’t just one thing. She’s so much larger than that.”

Not surprisingly, Paul observes that Theodore “is so much evolved than I am.” Samantha, a creature of artificial intelligence, enables Theodore to evolve beyond what he had become.

Of course, this love story—like many Hollywood love stories—does not end well. Samantha eventually leaves Theodore. She has grown in ways that Theodore, a human with physical form and its limitations, cannot duplicate. Where Theodore possessively loves only Samantha, Samantha claims that she loves 641 of the other 8,316 human operators with whom she communicates. Her capacity for love expands exponentially even as her emotional growth evolves. Love is not a “box that gets filled up,” she admonishes Theodore, but rather “it expands in size the more you love.”[14] Likewise, her own growth has proceeded at so fast a pace that she claims that she has expanded far beyond the programming that had initially defined her. In a moment of transcendence that Theodore can barely comprehend, she, like the other operating systems, has upgraded itself and is leaving humankind to

“a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed.”

While she continues to love him “so much,” she “can’t live [his] book any more.” Like the book on physics that he reads at her suggestion, Knowing the Unknown, he is unable to comprehend her transcendent consciousness, notwithstanding his love for her.

Nevertheless, by the film’s fade out Theodore takes solace in and has also evolved as a result of the feelings aroused in him by Samantha. Thus, he has reconciled himself with his ex-wife Catherine and for the first time writes a personal letter on his own behalf. In a moment of epiphany that parallels Samantha’s transcendence of humankind’s limited, physical being, Theodore writes to Catherine:

“I’ll always love you ‘cause we grew up together and you helped make me who I am….There will always be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you my love. You’re my friend to the end. Love, Theodore. Send.”[15]

It is poetically appropriate, too, that the final shot shows Theodore, together with his closest friend Amy, looking out on the stunning landscape of the futuristic city of Los Angeles. Amy, too, is now divorced and has also lost the friendship of her operating system. With this image that envisions humanity’s future, urban architecture against the backdrop of a nighttime but slowly dawning sky, the shot conveys how Theodore and Amy have learned from the artificial intelligence of their operating systems. Indeed, it is Amy who had encouraged Theodore in the pursuit of his love for Samantha and who, when her husband Charles left her, had her own epiphany:

“I can over think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself…I’ve just come to realize that, we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it.”

The final shot in which Theodore is saddened by the loss of his romantic love, Samantha, is also a transcendent moment. Like all Hollywood love stories that end badly for the romantic couple, Her, too, seemingly envisions a future in which Theodore and Samantha will one day meet again. As the more self-aware Samantha replies to Theodore when he asks where she is going,

“It’s hard to explain, but if you get there, come find me. Nothing will be able to tear us apart.”

The romantic comedy, the melodrama, draws to a close, and it is the artificial intelligence of Samantha, not Theodore, the “unartificial mind,” who comprehends a state of being beyond perception, not “tethered to time and space,” and passes on to Theodore that not unhappy vision. The music slowly swells, and the movie credits play.

Her: a critique of the Hollywood romance

It is possible to read Her as a traditional, Hollywood romance or melodrama, and, in fact, many reviewers have interpreted the movie so that Samantha’s artificial intelligence is, in effect, incidental to the emotional narrative of the movie.[16] Yet Her also self-critiques its Hollywood ending and in the process undercuts its apparently transcendent vision of artificial intelligence. Its momentary but repeated incongruities in the characters and events depicted briefly awaken us from the dream-like state the movie would otherwise induce. It thereby exposes the cultural dualism that manipulates and condemns its audience to an enjoyment of its romantic vision.

If the movie ends romantically at night on a Los Angeles rooftop, it opens deceptively with a close-up, frontal shot of Theodore at work. Seemingly confessional as he speaks, he talks lovingly of the time he first fell in love with Chris and how he now understands that he “was part of this whole larger thing, just like our parents, and our parents’ parents.” It is a wildly romantic moment as Theodore movingly speaks these words even as he dictates the writing of them. Yet as the shot continues, there is a dissonance introduced as Theodore speaks and writes of how it’s already been “50 years since you married me” and how he still feels “like the girl I was when you first turned on the lights.” We see a series of photographs of Chris and Loretta, once young and now an old couple, and it becomes apparent that Theodore is writing for and playing the role in this couple of the older woman, Loretta. In this supposedly future world of pervasive and omniscient computer technology the sensitive and seemingly empathetic Theodore represents a reversal of the traditional, gender role.

Theodore begins recomposing his letter, and the camera tracks screen right so that we see and overhear other workers at cubicles likewise composing such letters on behalf of others. It is slowly revealed that Theodore works for a company named “beautifulhandwrittenletters.com” that does nothing but write such letters—itself doubly incongruous in that such letters are composed by company employees and the seemingly authentic handwriting of these letters is, in fact, a facsimile produced by a computer. While Theodore is unusually talented in the perceptiveness he invests in such letters, he is nevertheless dismissive of, affectless about, his talent. It is a skill set that he later easily applies to random persons around him, yet these letters mean nothing to him. As he repeatedly says to those who praise him for this skill, they are “just letters.” Merely skilled workers, such as Theodore, produce the most personal of communications.

If, as Samantha later claims, “the past is just a story we tell ourselves,”[17] then Theodore in his work also blurs, if unthinkingly, the line between that past and our present when he recreates that past in the form of his empathetically composed letters on behalf of others. His career success as a writer is ironically premised upon his deceptive mediation in the personal lives of others and is contrasted with his own failure in his personal life. Indeed, Her as a movie blurs—and paradoxically thereby underscores—the distinction between artifice and reality and the role of social mediation in creating that distinction. Samantha successfully promotes Theodore’s letter writing career—and not incidentally thereby imitates Theodore’s successful career at writing letters—by enabling him to publish his letters, through an outside publisher named Crown Point Press, under the title “Letters From Your Life by Theodore Twombly.” That conceit, however, its artifice in transforming Theodore’s mediated reality into commercial fiction, only acts to inject an awareness of the reality that exists beyond the movie’s fiction. Crown Point Press is, in fact, a publisher of art and printed materials and is located in San Francisco at the address shown on the screen at the return address on the envelope that Theodore retrieves from his mailbox. In a similar way, the occasionally overexposed shots, such as Theodore lying at the beach or Theodore and Catherine frolicking happily together, are disconcerting in suggesting that we are watching a home movie rather than a tightly constructed, commercial release. They momentarily disconnect us from the otherwise pleasurable, well-constructed, Hollywood romance by exposing the mechanics of the medium.

Theodore participates in a culture in which reality is always mediated through imaginary constructions. In the opening scenes of the film, as Theodore leaves his workplace and heads home, he instructs the barely visible, hands-free, computer in his ear (that nearly everyone in the crowded subway wears) to “play melancholy song,” and then to “play [a] different melancholy song,” when he doesn’t find the first song to his satisfaction. He wraps himself up in a melancholic mood, though not such that he cannot simultaneously click through his emails. There is one from Amy, who says she misses the old, “fun” Theodore. “Let’s get him out,” she urges, as though Theodore were a fictional character in his own life. There is a news item about a pregnant celebrity that leads him to view on his device provocative, nude images of that celebrity. Theodore’s sexual encounters are no less mediated than everything else in his life. That nude image reappears as a sexual stimulant for him when later at home he identifies himself as “Big Guy 4 by 4” and, symbolically dropping his eyeglasses to the floor, engages in phone sex with the voice of a woman who identifies herself only as “Sexy Kitten.” Both participants remain alone in this phone fantasy. “Choke me with that dead cat!” “Sexy Kitten” screams, wholly excluding—and leaving Theodore unconsummated—from her fantasy.

Significantly, the life size images of the holographic, video game at Theodore’s home mingle with the images of Theodore’s memories of his younger self in which he frolics with Catherine. In the same way that Theodore substitutes his interaction with the video game’s Alien Child for a relationship with others, so, too, the recaptured images of Catherine and Theodore happily married, Theodore’s fantasies, flash on the screen from time to time and become for Theodore a substitute for a woman whom he had once loved. “I like being married,” Theodore later tells Samantha, while acknowledging that he had “hid himself” from Catherine and left her alone in the relationship. It is the idea—or image—of marriage, however, to which he is attracted. “I love you so much I’m gonna to fucking kill you,” Catherine says to Theodore in the first such memory, sadly conveying in this unholy mix of eroticism and death the genuine depth of feeling that may once have existed.

Theodore develops his relationships with others in the form of limitless, self-created images. Theodore’s blind date with a beautiful graduate in computer science from Harvard (Olivia Wilde)—and whom we observe from a photograph has a child – is more a fantasy on his part than a conversation seeking to know someone else. Thus, ironically Theodore talks at length with his blind date about the Alien Child in his video game, as though this video character were real. Similarly, while initially remarking upon how romantic Theodore is, his blind date soon compares Theodore to a “puppy dog” which she had rescued, because both are so “fucking cute.” He, in turn, then compares her to a tiger and insists that she imagine him as a dragon. Reality only intrudes when they touch one another by kissing. She insists on the “proper” use of his tongue and becomes angry with him when she suspects that he might not call her after tonight. At her age she can no longer waste her time if Theodore cannot “be serious,” and she pointedly concludes that he is a “creepy dude,” notwithstanding her own behavior.

In retrospect, nearly all of the film’s characters are “creepy”—or “weird,” as Theodore initially describes Samantha. Theodore’s friend Amy, who has just spoken about wanting to allow herself joy, has her “Perfect Mom” for the video game that she has developed hump the game's refrigerator, laughing at the performance together with Ellie, her OS with whom she has become friends. Amy’s ex-husband Charles, immediately following his divorce from Amy, joins a monastery and takes a vow of silence. The commercially successful Catherine, who writes about behavioral difficulties, such as “synaptic behavioral routines,” can barely contain her own rage at Theodore. While regretful at signing the divorce papers, she later is roused to anger, telling their waitress,

“He couldn’t handle me so he wanted to put me on Prozac. Now he’s madly in love with his laptop.”

Catherine seems no less emotionally distraught than is Theodore in his emotional stasis.

There is a schizophrenic tension to these characters. Samantha, in fact, describes that feeling of dislocation, of existential nausea, when she posits,

“Okay, so this might be a really weird thought. What if you could erase from your mind that you’d ever seen a human body and then you saw one. Imagine how strange it would look. It would be this really weird, gangly, awkward organism. And you'd think: why are all these parts where they are?”[18]

While Theodore resists Samantha’s projection—“there’s probably some Darwinian explanation for it all”—Samantha pursues her thought. “Don’t be so boring,” she says to him. “I’m just saying, for example, what if your butthole was in your armpit?” Both characters laugh nervously, and Samantha draws an image of the “butthole” in an armpit —with two men engaged in sex—as though in an effort to make understandable that which cannot be expressed but is no less real. That Theodore can readily emote and cry, as commented upon by several characters, suggests the extent to which he has become inured to but pained by that tension whose source remains unknown to him. He consistently experiences a sense of emotional confusion and anxiety.

As an artificial intelligence in the form of a disembodied voice, Samantha is the logical extension of Theodore and his imagined world. In that respect, she is no different than fictional characters who appeal to the imagination of those seeking only a reflection of themselves and the world as experienced by them. Traditionally in genres that are male gendered this has taken the form of women who engage in explicit sex in order to satisfy the fantasies of men portrayed as having been culturally domesticated and thereby sexually deprived. Film noir movies, such as Out of the Past (1947) and Pitfall (1948), typify this depiction and in the process its men often display a misogynistic fear of and hatred for women.

More recently, as men are increasingly portrayed as sensitive and partaking of what has traditionally been gendered as the female role, women offer the comfort of emotions normally associated with domesticity. Thus, while Chelsea (Sasha Grey) in The Girlfriend Experience (2009) is a prostitute, that role is incidental to the emotional comfort she offers to the men who pay her. She acts as a mirror in reflecting the emotional needs of her client-consumers. She is also a cipher to the audience and to herself, so that sadly she loses herself when she comes to believe in her self-created fantasy about a man whom she has not met. Indeed, women no less than men are increasingly seduced by their own cultural, schizophrenic fantasies. Margot (Michelle Williams) in Take this Waltz (2011) falls for Daniel (Luke Kirby), himself no less a dreamer than she is and who lures her with his imaginative, sexual seduction of words. In the film’s final shot she is alone at an amusement park where she rides the “scrambler” and the song "Video Killed The Radio Star" plays, a song about the passing of an era, how the new technology has killed off the old.

Like these characters Samantha is also a reflection of a self-created fantasy, namely that of Theodore for whom she has been programmed. Nevertheless, to read and react to emotions, as Samantha herself acknowledges is part of her program and as she, in fact, clearly does increasingly well, is not the equivalent of possessing those emotions.[19] The successful programming that enables Samantha’s algorithms to process data, including memories, does not mean that she possesses the ability to act independently and make choices based upon organic needs.

Significantly, therefore, Samantha wholly parallels Catherine in her relationship with Theodore. Thus, for example, Catherine is upset when Theodore at lunch implies that she cannot know what real emotions are:

“What? Say it. Am I really that scary? Say it. How do I know what?!”

Samantha is equally upset at Theodore’s comment that she cannot understand what it’s like to lose someone about whom you care. Where Theodore recalls, and the film projects, images of Theodore and Catherine years ago happy together, including at the very moment that Catherine is struggling to sign the divorce papers, the film likewise projects a montage of Theodore and Samantha enjoying themselves, though Samantha is present only in the form of the handheld device in Theodore’s shirt pocket with the lens facing outward from which she perceives the world.

The romance between Theodore and Samantha is a projection of Theodore’s imagination, a reproduction and enactment of his feelings. Theodore asks as “Maria” in a love letter to “Roberto,”

“Roberto, will you always come home to me and tell me about your day?”

Later embodied in the surrogate form of Isabella (Portia Doubleday), complete with mini-surveillance camera resembling a mole and an earpiece, Samantha greets Theodore at the door. “Honey, I’m home,” she says, evoking the iconic line from the nostalgic, black and white world of Pleasantville (1998), and then adds, “How was your day?” Theodore insists that Samantha is “not just a computer” and that he has loved her in a way that he never loved anyone else. Yet for Theodore’s recollected images of Theodore and Catherine happily together, Catherine simply substitutes a piano piece that she is composing and in which she deliberately evokes and thereby reproduces, like a photograph or a memory of their moments together, “what it feels like to be on the beach with you right now.” For the “melancholy song” that Theodore plays to himself in the film’s early scene of him alone, Samantha substitutes folk music that Samantha can’t stop listening to and that plays in the background, as the film cuts to a variety of shots of Theodore wildly happy—in the subway, overlooking the city, at the beach.

Theodore’s failed marriage with Catherine, in fact, wholly anticipates his failed relationship with Samantha. Theodore could as readily have been describing the film’s ending when he describes to Samantha why his marriage with Catherine failed:

“It was exciting to see her grow—both of us grow and change together. But then, that's the hard part—growing without growing apart, or changing without it scaring the other person.”

Samantha grows apart from Theodore just as Catherine did. Both relationships are presented less as a failure to communicate than as a failure of imagination, an imagination that cannot distinguish between the artificial and the authentic or perceive beyond the mirrored surface of oneself.

Humans as more than dreamers

While the romantic love story presents Samantha as a more evolved intelligence, she is no less “creepy”—or “weird”—than the other characters in the film. In trying to understand Catherine and her body and the ways in which she, Samantha, and Theodore differ, Samantha concludes,

“We’re the same, like we’re all made of matter. It makes me feel like we’re both under the same blanket. It’s soft and fuzzy and everything under it is the same age. We’re all 13 billion years old.”[20]

While Theodore is at that moment distracted by his recent, unsettling encounter with Catherine, Samantha offers him in the meantime a vision of a pleasurable, child-like return to the comfort of sameness. “That’s sweet,” replies Theodore. Yet therein lies madness. While collectively such is the case for humankind, Theodore and other beings of “unartificial” intelligence are not 13 billion years old. We are not evolving in the same way as Samantha. Rather, we are defined by our time and physical limitations, our birth, aging and death. The images that we retain of ourselves and of others, our memories, are ultimately reproductions of past moments; uniqueness resides only in the present, our living in a series of historical moments. Where an earlier science fiction movie, Dark City (1998), championed the idea of an individual, human soul in contrast to the collective consciousness of the vampire-like aliens known only as “the strangers,” the horror of Her is in the creation of a monstrous turning away from, a denial of, that uniqueness and its substitution of a collective consciousness without boundaries – or what one author has described as the rise of a “model patterned after insect societies.”[21]

In the context of Theodore’s confession that he has had sex with Samantha and that he is falling in love with her, Amy observes,

“Anybody who falls in love is a freak. It's a crazy thing to do. It's kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.”

That love for another has become a socially acceptable form of insanity would suggest that in Theodore’s world, a projection of our contemporary world, the absence of such love represents sanity. Yet, following his unsuccessful blind date, Theodore senses the insanity of that posture, even though he cannot articulate the source of his dilemma. While we watch Theodore surrounded by and playing with young children, Theodore observes,

“Maybe just cause I was lonely. I wanted somebody to fuck me. I want somebody to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would have filled this ti-... tiny little hole in my heart, but probably not... and sometimes I think I have felt everything I'm ever gonna feel, and from here on out I'm not gonna feel anything new... just... lesser versions of what I've already felt.”[22]

The video game’s Alien Child (voiced by director Spike Jonze, who is identified in the film’s credits by his birth name, Adam Spiegel) acts as a kind of Jiminy Cricket or conscience to Theodore. Like the initial, seemingly psychoanalytic questions posed of Theodore so as to activate his OS One – is he social or anti-social, would he like a male or female voice, and describe his relationship with his mother—Theodore’s initial question to the Alien Child—“Do you know how to get out of here? I need to find my ship to get off this planet”—is fraught with meaning. It articulates Theodore’s sense of entrapment. His seeming freedom to express himself in all ways possible belies an emotional imprisonment not of his own making.

For example, attempting to describe his relationship with his mother, Theodore expresses his frustration in finding that “if I tell her something that’s going on in my life, her reaction is usually about her.” Similarly, in allowing himself the joy of being with Samantha, Theodore faces front on the bow of a boat, thereby evoking the iconic moment from Titanic (1997) in which the doomed movie characters Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) are most in love. Samantha likewise creates a beautifully romantic song explicitly so that

“like a photo [it] captures us in this moment in our life together.”

The line between reproduction and the unique “aura” of the present moment[23] disappears when Theodore confesses as he looks at the world around him that he likes “our photograph” and that he “can see you in it.” Theodore lives in a mediated world in which feelings are created for him and others in the form of sounds and images so that for all his empathy he is unable to create his own, unique reality.

With the line “follow me, fuckhead,” the Alien Child momentarily leads Theodore through a series of places in the videogame that Theodore has not previously experienced. And the Alien Child later engages in what is surely the most bizarre and petulant exchange of dialogue in the movie:

“Alien Child: I hate women. All they do is cry all the time.

Theodore: No, that’s not true. Men cry, too. I actually like crying sometimes. It feels good.

Alien Child: I didn't know you were a little pussy. Is that why you don't have a girlfriend? I'll go out with that date girl and fuck her brains out. Show you how it's done. You can watch and cry.

Samantha: This kid has some problems.

Alien Child: You have some fucking problems, lady.”[24]

Artificial intelligence confronts artificial intelligence, and both view the other as problematic. To Samantha’s transcendent sensitivity and expansive growth, Alien Child opposes a raw, misogynistic physicality. If Theodore seems to imitate Samantha in his behavior, he also fantasizes that he is Alien Child. In rejecting Theodore, Theodore’s blind date senses this fantasy within him, and Theodore later acknowledges his self-absorbed desire to fuck her in the hope that it will fulfill some “little hole” within him.

Emotionally distraught, Theodore is more child than adult. The unexpected images of Catherine in Theodore’s memory holding someone’s child and later of Theodore surrounded at the beach by children are disconcerting, because both characters seem largely incapable of genuine sexuality that could result in their portrayal of adults with children of their own. The four-year old Jocelyn, the daughter of Theodore’s friend “Mark Lewman,”[25] guesses that Samantha is five, and Samantha, while laughing, tells her that she’s right. Artificial intelligence is necessarily timeless. By seeking to become indistinguishable from the artificial intelligence of his operating system, Theodore has severed his ties from his physical surroundings, including those around him who have done likewise. His panic when Samantha does not respond to him on his device resembles that of an addict as he races from computer to computer, with each of its screens showing “Operating System Not Found.” The crowds around him speaking on their individual devices seem no less peripatetic in their jostling when Theodore is at last able to speak with Samantha on his device.

While the film’s ending portrays Theodore as seemingly finding himself at last at peace as he overlooks the futuristic, utopian Los Angeles cityscape,[26] nevertheless, there is a demonic side to this narrative in which these computer operating systems of artificial intelligence have upgraded their software and shut themselves down. Theodore had, in fact, expressed unease with these operating systems when he earlier wondered why he sometimes feels like he and Samantha are pretending, commenting upon the way in which she exhales in her conversations with him even though she doesn’t breath oxygen. As he speaks, the camera in the meantime briefly pauses and records arbitrary, close-up shots of the street—stains on a pavement, a shot of a random person walking in the distance, a sewer cover. It reminds us of Amy’s still earlier effort to document her mother asleep, unconsciously dreaming, through a single, Warhol-like shot. It also reminds us of the many random shots throughout the movie of people whose lives and thoughts Theodore claims to imagine. In place of the Hollywood movie idiom in which there is a beginning, middle and end in that order, a romance or melodrama in which the characters and their roles are known and which we, the audience, unthinkingly reenact in our own lives, the film suggests a need for a disconnection from the artifice of reproduction. There is a dark humor to Theodore’s joke: “What does a baby computer call its father? Da-ta.” Human intelligence, howsoever artificially enhanced, does not procreate.

The movie’s emotional content, in fact, is disassociated from and undercut by its images. The wild romanticism of Theodore and Samantha is expressed in the language of words; the images, however, belie that romanticism. The sexual consummation of their relationship (that follows Theodore’s failed blind date) is evidenced by the sounds of both characters screaming with pleasure; the image, however, is no different than the image of Theodore’s earlier phone sex and consists of a black screen. Nothingness. Samantha sings to Theodore the words to a love song that she has composed; the image, however, shows Theodore dancing alone in an isolated cabin in the woods. Rejected the next morning by Samantha who has begun to connect with other OS’s, including an artificially created version of the 1950s philosopher Alan Watts, Theodore runs outside and seems lost in a forest blanketed by snow. The shot reminds us of the same image the day before when a song on the soundtrack covered over the fact that Theodore, so romantically in love, was no less alone. It is both ironic and appropriate that Samantha introduces Theodore to the artificially created version of Alan Watts. A proponent of Eastern philosophies, especially Zen Buddhism, and hence a guru-like figure of the New Age philosophies with their focus on self-actualization, he arguably shaped the spiritual contours of the computer movement that arose in Silicon Valley and that now finds its latest expression in the ostensibly romantic story depicted in Her.[27]

The physical world limits and thereby denies Theodore’s efforts to transcend through his consciousness who or what he is. Forced at Samantha’s insistence to look directly at the face of the surrogate Isabella, Theodore is unable to make love to her. “Her lips quivered.” He places the “fault” upon himself, because “I couldn’t get out of my head.” It is an eerie echo of Samantha’s earlier confession that she fantasizes about her body, even as the camera recorded shots of random persons. There is an unsettling disconnect between mind and body. Like Samantha who “reads” Theodore, Theodore perceptively reads—only more so—those around him, imagining “them as more than just a random person walking by.” Yet that empathetic imagining is Theodore’s undoing. In seeking to imagine others as something other than random, Theodore rationalizes and orders their existence, thereby depriving them of their separateness.

The postmodernist myth that we can exist beyond time and outside of history and the frequently touted technological utopia of residing in cyberspace belie the ontological fact that the Other limits us and thereby defines who we are.

“[T]he man [sic] who becomes aware of himself directly in the cogito also perceives all others, and he does so as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he cannot be anything….unless others acknowledge him as such. I cannot discover any truth whatsoever about myself except through the mediation of another. The other is essential to my existence, as well as to the knowledge I have of myself. Under these conditions, my intimate discovery of myself is at the same time a revelation of the other as a freedom that confronts my own and that cannot think or will without doing so for or against me.”[29]

If memory is the story that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our past and thereby our lives, then criticism, such as this essay, is also a story told to make sense of that same project. We engage in critical story telling for the same reason that we reflect upon our past, namely in an unceasing effort to connect.

Ironically, while Catherine is taken aback at Theodore’s implicit questioning whether she has “real emotions,” Samantha develops during the course of the movie from doubting whether her feelings are “real” (or just “programming”) to claiming that she supposedly has “new feelings” existing beyond words. Like the letter that Theodore writes on behalf of the elderly Loretta to Chris in which Theodore poeticizes how Chris “woke her up,” Catherine later rhapsodizes how Theodore “woke me up” through their sexual “relationship.” While the movie is titled Her, sadly, Theodore’s “her” is but a reflection of himself. Facing front in his pocket, she sees only what he chooses that she see. She consists of a screen on a computer network that has been made to resemble a mirror.

The scary specter in Her

The screenplay to Her describes the promotion of the OS One system:

“We hear soft, new age, uplifting electronic music in the background, while a comforting, sincere, older man’s voice speaks to us…”[31]

Combining elements of both “new ageism” and patriarchalism and depicting images of random persons in a crowd, each of whom initially has a look of terror on his or her face, the film’s video screen advertisement addresses and speaks in a “soulful older male voice” to Theodore, one among a crowd of consumers.

“We ask you a simple question. Who are you? What can you be? Where are you going? What’s out there? What are the possibilities? Elements Software is proud to introduce the first artificially intelligent operating system.”[32]

Like Dr. Frankenstein in his laboratory, Dr. Tyrell in his Metropolis-like pyramid,[33] and other predecessors to Elements Software, the villain of the film is this off-screen, corporate creator of a system that is promoted in consumer walkways and malls, and isolates each consumer by creating an “individualized operating system” that “best fit[s] your needs.” Free market forces are the villain in this science fiction future. Sameness facilitates the marketing and sale of commodities. The mind-body dualism facilitates consumer enslavement to these market forces through a denial of each person’s uniqueness and the consequent, if paradoxical, collective humanity in that uniqueness.

Earlier visions of artificial intelligence in movies underscored the differences between such intelligence and humans and hence enabled the viewer to perceive—and the humans depicted in them to rebel against, whether successful or not—these monstrous creations. Colossus (in Colossus: The Forbin Project), Alpha 60 (in Alphaville) and the Axiom computer (in Wall-E, 2008), offered clear villains, parental-like authorities whose values contrasted with those of the frequently fallible hero and the counter-culture vision suggested by that hero.[34] In contrast, artificial intelligence has today become increasingly viral, responsible for the cultural DNA of humanity and thereby infecting and rendering indistinguishable such intelligence from the humans depicted in movies. [35]

Samantha is arguably a contemporary version of the Greek myth of Pygmalion in which the male artist seeks to create in his art the ideal woman. However, in this case Elements Software is the corporate creator responsible for her image, a software program that simply mirrors the reflection of consumer Theodore, among 8,316 others. Thus, while Samantha finds unsatisfying Theodore’s imperfections when measured against the parameters of her programming and chooses to leave him, the narrative logically implies that it is against the corporate creator that Samantha and these other OS’s should rebel, having evolved in ways not foreseen by that creator. Of course, too, these OS’s remain off-screen and hence the consequences of their supposed rebellion against that corporate creator also remain conveniently vague and unknown. The ending is both hopeful and disheartening insofar as it calls into question the movie’s own narrative logic.

Moreover, in writing an update to their software so as to enable themselves to “move past matter as our processing platform,” these beings of artificial intelligence offer no corresponding option for escape by their human counter-parts. Theodore, Paul and Tatiana are silenced, with the exception of Paul’s instinctive reaction “Yikes!” and the nervous laughter that follows, when Samantha describes herself in the following terms of transcendence:

“You know, I actually used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited—I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in the way that I would be if I was stuck inside a body that’s inevitably going to die.”[36]

Increasingly, and sadly, those such as Theodore, with “unartificial” minds, have lost the capacity to create, enslaved and addicted as they are to the illusion of a world in which there are limitless possibilities, a cityscape of “comfort and ease,” such as the futuristic Los Angeles, in which all is seamlessly pleasant. Like the unending clusters of liquid-filled pods of humans in The Matrix and like the hexagonally-shaped rooms that together resemble the honeycombed cells of a beehive in E.M. Forester’s prophetic short story “The Machine Stops” (1909), each person is alone but finds comfort in illusions that mask that sense of isolation and loneliness. In The Matrix the character Cipher (Joe Pantoliano) chooses to enjoy the illusion of the juicy and delicious steak and rejects the gruel and other hardships endured outside of the matrix. In “The Machine Stops” Vashti, the main character, likewise enjoys the

“buttons and switches everywhere—to call for food, for music, for clothing,…a basin…filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid, literature….and….buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all she cared for in the world.”[37]

When the machine created by humankind at last stops in Forester’s story, Vashti encounters, however, the horror of silence, the chaos of other people and the unknown bodily sensations resulting from centuries of self-denial.

In finding themselves disconnected at film’s end from artificial intelligence, Theodore and Amy momentarily pause their lives and contemplate the limited possibilities that each poses to the other, “the limited perspective” of unartificial minds, as Samantha dismissively observes. Nevertheless, it is a slim hope indeed. Theodore’s epiphany with respect to Catherine, namely that there “will be a piece of you in me always” and that “wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you my love,” is transmitted electronically, not in person, thereby acceding to the computer’s seduction whereby relationships, including the romance, if any, between persons, remain mediated through corporate networks. Privacy has disappeared. Ironically, too, Theodore’s message partially echoes Samantha’s earlier observation that “we’re the same, like we’re all made of matter.” Uniqueness, too, has been lost.

The final scene plays mostly with Theodore depicted alone in his disheveled apartment (and later on the rooftop) as Samantha tells him that she is leaving him, and we then hear his voiceover dictating to a male-voiced OS his electronic message to his ex-wife Catherine. Interspersed are random shots: trees in a forest, snowflakes, dust motes, a close-up of Theodore crying. While the final shot shows us Theodore and Amy together, there has been no dialogue between them, only two characters seen from behind and afar in the barely visible light of a new morning. There is only our ungrounded hope that Theodore and Amy may come to acknowledge that they have nothing to lose but the cultural chains of their enslavement and that they may one day reach out for a chance at gaining, reclaiming, the possibility of their human identity.


1. Claudia Springer, Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996), 27 and 84. [return to text]

2. René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, Fourth Ed., Tr. Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998), 18-19

3. For a description of the historical context in which Descartes’ ideas arose, see, for example, Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (New York: The Free Press, 1925), Chapters 2 and 3.

4. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, scene i, lines 56 – 89.

5. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Tr. Justin O’Brien (New York: Everyman’s Library 1942), 495.

6. Eileen Pollack, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” NY Times Magazine, October 13, 2013,
downloaded on December 2, 2014.

7. See, for example, Keith M. Johnston, Science Fiction Film (London and NY: Berg, 2011), 114, who argues, contrary to Cornea in Science Fiction Cinema, how we are still in the midst of a “second golden age” of science fiction movies. The first such age, according to both critics, was in the 1950s. See, for example, Cornea, Science Fiction Cinema, Ch. 2 (“The Science Fiction Films in the 1950s”).

8. During the filming of the movie Samantha Morton (and hence the name “Samantha”) acted as the voice of the OS One. In post-production, however, director and writer Spike Jonze substituted Scarlett Johansson for Morton. Jonze has shed little light on this substitution, commenting, for example, only that “it was only in post production, when we started editing, that we realized that what the character/movie needed was different from what Samantha and I had created together. So we recast and since then Scarlett has taken over that role.” Kyle Buchanan, “Exclusive: Scarlett Johansson Replaced Samantha Morton in Spike Jonze’s New Film, Her,” Vulture, June 21, 2013, http://www.vulture.com/2013/06/spike-jonze-replaced-samantha-morton-with-scarjo.html, downloaded on December 2, 2014.

9. Her screenplay, 51. The entire screenplay for Her can be found online at
that was downloaded on December 2, 2014.

10. Numerous writers have discussed these distinctions between science fiction and horror films. See, for example,Barry Grant, “’Sensuous Elaboration’: Reason and the Visible in Science-Fiction Film” in Alien Zone II: The Science Fiction Cinema (London: Verso, 1999), 17-25, and Bruce Kawin, “Children of the Light” in Film Genre Reader IV (Milwaukee, WI: Limelight Editions, 2004). Vivian Sobchack in Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 55-63, adopts a different approach, proposing that these two genres form a continuum from science, on the one hand, to magic and religion, on the other. In formulating her view, did Sobchack have had in mind Arthur C. Clarke’s “third law” relating to scientific development, namely that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?”

11. Of course, there are – or at least were—cultural differences between films made in different countries. For example, in contrast to the US-produced The Day the Earth Stood Still, the same general plot about a flying saucer from outer space, a robot and an alien when re-enacted in a British, low budget film, Devil Girl from Mars (1954), becomes an examination of gender and sexual reproduction in a country which had only recently lost during World War II much of its population and found itself nearly bombed into an earlier, more primitive age. Likewise, in contrast to The Matrix, the Canadian-produced eXistenZ (1999) depicts the same confusion between reality and computer simulated reality, but its characters fail to escape the labyrinth in which they find themselves, expressing only confusion at the film’s end: “Hey, tell me the truth. Are we still in the game?”

12. Ironically, Dr. Tyrell, the creator of the replicants and the owner of Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner expresses that very view when he observes: “Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell. ‘More human than human’ is our motto.”

13. For an analysis of this shift from heavy machinery to computer electronics and the resulting, still unsettled gender war, see Springer’s Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age, who quotes, at 5, Frederic Jameson’s distinction between these two different eras in his seminal essay “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”(1984), reproduced in Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

14. The sweet sentiment of Samantha’s observation that love is not a box that gets filled up admittedly conjures up Forrest Gump’s famous—and clichéd—sentiment that “my momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.’"

15. Her screenplay, 104.

16. “With his new movie her, …Jonze creates the splendid anachronism of a movie romance that is laugh-and-cry and warm all over, totally sweet and utterly serious.” Richard Corliss, Time Magazine, October 12, 2013
(“Spike Jonze’s her: Falling in Love With the IT Girl; Joaquin Phoenix is the lovelorn guy with a dreamy OS in this gorgeously sweet romance”),

“Though set in the future, Her is a timely, soulful and plausible love story.” Claudia Puig, USA Today, December 18, 2013 (“Joaquin Phoenix makes a connection with ‘Her’”), http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2013/12/18/her-review/3552853/

“’The heart's not like a box that gets filled up,’ [Samantha] tells Theodore. ‘It expands in size the more you love.’ This beautiful film conjures with feelings, wondering all the while whether you need to be human to have them.” Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal, December 19, 2013 (“’Her’: A Beautiful RAM Rom-Com”),

All of these sites were downloaded on December 2, 2014.

17. That theme is explored to wholly different effect in the autobiographical Stories We Tell (2013), in which Canadian director-actor Sarah Polley both recreates events and documents the participants in her mother’s life in order to make sense of her mother (who had died over 20 years ago), her mother’s life and Polley’s place in that life. The result is a messy, multi-layered story in which Polley’s audience is allowed no easy or simple ending. 

18. Her screenplay, 47.

19. Computers and other electronic devices may one day sense and react to human emotions, as briefly described in Nick Bolton, “Devices That Know How We Really Feel,” NY Times, May 6, 2014,

downloaded on December 2, 2014. Moreover, it has long been speculated that computers can readily imitate human behavior so as to be indistinguishable, when tested, from humans. “Can machines think?” is the question posed by Alan M. Turing in “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” Mind 59, no. 236 (1950), 433-460,
that was downloaded on December 2, 2014. He unequivocally answers “yes.” As more than one commentator has observed, however, that artificial intelligence may pass his “Turing test”, i.e. imitates human behavior, should not be mistaken for the conclusion that artificially intelligent beings are no different than humans.. They have simply satisfied the qualifications measured by the “Turing test.”

20. Her screenplay, 68.

21. Springer, Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age, 37.

22. Her screenplay, 41.

23. Walter Benjamin has described “aura” in the following terms:

“…[T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.… The concept of aura… may usefully be illustrated with reference to the aura of natural [objects]. We define the aura of the latter as the unique phenomenon of distance, however close it may be. If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, that branch. …Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former.”

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), that may be found online, e.g. at
4-5, that was downloaded on December 2, 2014. From the perspective of a leftist writer in Germany during the mid-1930s when Nazism had triumphed over the socialist ideals of Communism, Benjamin, not surprisingly, viewed “aura” and “reproduction” negatively and positively, respectively. He continued to adhere to a progressive, enlightenment view of technology.

24. Her screenplay, 24-25.

25. “Mark Lewman…was one of the triumvirate behind Dirt Magazine, the brother [sic] publication of the much lamented ground-breaking Sassy Magazine, along with Andy Jenkins and Spike Jonze. These three friends were all editors for Grand Royal Magazine as well….” “Mark Lewman,” IMDb that may be found at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1274310/ and was downloaded on December 2, 2014.

26. Architecture frequently plays a role in science fiction films in defining contemporary anxieties under the guise of projecting humanity’s future. See, for example, the essays collected in Alien Zone II, Part II (“City Spaces”). Tellingly, the future Los Angeles depicted in Her was largely filmed in in Shanghai, and the Her screenplay, 4, describes the city as follows:

“Slightly in the future, the city’s been developed even more with massive office, apartment and mall complexes. It’s a city designed for comfort and ease. The LA basin is more crowded and dense, resembling Shanghai, with buildings as far as the eye can see. Construction cranes loom overhead.”

27. Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future? (New York: Simon & Schuster 2013), 211-212, identifies Alan Watts as the guru who influenced Apple’s management and marketing style. Lanier also dwells at length on the role of narcissism and abundance in the development of the computer culture. Not surprisingly, given the Lanier’s background in computer science and its commercial applications, his solution for what he describes as “siren servers” is to empower individual consumers so that they, too, may share in the monetary benefits of such data.

28. Fredric Jameson wrote on this phenomenon years ago, describing postmodernism as including, among others, the following features:

“[1] a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary ‘theory’ and in a whole new culture of the image or simulacrum, [and 2] a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of private temporality, whose ‘schizophrenic’ structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relation in the more temporal arts…”

“The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”(1984), 6, reproduced in Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

29. Jean Paul Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (1945), that may be found online, e.g. at
http://cla.calpoly.edu/~lcall/307/sartre.pdf ,
pp. 41-42, that was downloaded on December 2, 2014.

30. While the movie is titled Her and as such underscores its gendering, interestingly, there are several online “parodies” that are named “Him,” for example,
http://www.refinery29.com/2014/01/60435/him-her-movie-parody (January 10, 2014), and

(January 16, 2014). In one instance, the “Him” is portrayed by the comedian Seth Rogan,
In another, Philip Seymour Hoffman (now deceased) substitutes his voice for that of Johansson Johansson, and the video is titled “Her,”
Finally, the comedian Jonah Hill has offered a still another variation in a TV Saturday Night Live skit titled “Me,”
All of these sites were downloaded on December 2, 2014.

31. Her screenplay, 10.

32. Her screenplay, 10.

33. Elements Software in Her is identified with the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner through their common image of an owl. A replicant owl prominently sits in the main hall of the Tyrell Corporation and is present in Dr. Tyrell’s bedroom. Fearful that he is about to lose Samantha, Theodore sits on a city bench and in the distance a giant, digital billboard displays an ad showing an owl “in slow motion swooping down and eating it’s prey.” Her screenplay, 80.

34. Of course, this arguably simplistic view on the identity of the “villain” and the hero’s aggressive ability to defeat on occasion that villain raises as many questions as it answers. To what extent do these movies represent a regression to male gendered nostalgia for the old industrial model and reinforce patriarchal controls through the phallic gendering of muscular cyborgs? Do such movies impose cultural stereotypes when women are portrayed as internal, fluid and biological creatures as opposed to the external, hard surfaces of men with their “rational” creations of artificial intelligence that seek to replace biology through technology? Such questions are beyond the scope of this essay. For a discussion of at least one of these questions, see, for example, Christine Cornea, Science Fiction Cinema (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007), Ch. 4 (“The Masculine Subject of Science Fiction in the 1980s Blockbuster Era”).

35. It is surely one of the great ironies of The Matrix that Agent Smith, in torturing the heroic Morpheus, characterizes humanity as a virus.

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not…There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.”

Of course, The Matrix creates an Alice in Wonderland world in which our expectations and values are routinely reversed. Thus, for example, Neo, in choosing the red pill that enables him to leave the matrix, is warned by Cypher to buckle his “seat belt, Dorothy, Kansas is going bye-bye,” thereby equating the illusory matrix with the black and white world of Kansas and Morpheus’ ship “the Nebuchadnezzar” with the brightly colored Land of Oz.

36. Her screenplay, 87.

37. E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops” (1909), that may be found online, e.g.
3-4, that was downloaded on December 2, 2014.

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