The movie’s main character in Her (2014) is Theodore Twombly. He develops a romantic relationship with “her,” the artificial intelligence of a networked, computer operating system.
The role of gender in movies about artificial intelligence (or AI) has seemingly evolved. Dr. Will Caster in Transcendence (2014) prophesies that AI will overcome the limits of biology and is assassinated for his hubris.
His wife, Dr. Evelyn Caster, however, aspires through AI to improve the lot of humanity, refuses to accept her husband’s death and chooses through AI to enable the two of them to transcend together their mortality.
AI in the form of robots has evolved. The male, evil and mad scientist Rotwang created in the 1920s Metropolis the female, evil and erotic robot Maria as a double for the human — and saintly — Maria.
By the 1950s Forbidden Planet Robby the Robot serves as surrogate mother but is comically male-voiced. It is his creator, the scientist Dr. Morbius, who is evil in thinking himself God.
In the 1980s Blade Runner, Roy, a “replicant,” is “more human than human” and certainly more human than his god-like creator, Dr. Tyrell.
The robot David in AI (2001) is wholly loveable. His creator, Dr. Hobby, is obsessive and largely devoid of feelings for his creation of this little boy surrogate.
AI in the form of computers is often coded as evil. The computer that is embodied in Forbidden Planet — an alien race, the Krell — is both vast in size and an uncontrollable manifestation of the id.
In Colossus (1970) the two super-computers, the U.S. Colossus and the Soviet Guardian, develop their own language and enslave humanity. They also “give birth” to their own computer on the island of Crete.
I, Robot (2004) typifies the cultural divide between the AI of robots and computers. The robot Sonny is good, helping humans, and the computer VIKI is evil, seeking to enslave humans. Sonny is a man, and VIKI is a woman.
Movies about AI reflect their culture. The AI machines in The Matrix (1999) control humanity through a matrix that consists of a “computer generated dream.” Humans in this vast network are bred in pods and made to operate like batteries.
The Matrix's Neo, “the one,” rescues humanity from these machines. He triumphs by his transformation into the corporate, intellectual property known as “Superman.”
Her is ostensibly a romance. It recounts the story of the sensitive Theodore who misses and is unable to finalize his divorce from his wife Catherine. He falls in love with a female-voiced, computer operating system.
Theodore enacts, in part, the woman's role. His boss Paul compliments Theodore with the observation that “you’re part man and part woman, like an inner part woman.” Paul is less sympathetic, loving his girlfriend Tatiana only for her “hot feet.”
Theodore lives in a pleasurable world. On his way home from work, Theodore engages in chatter about blended juice drinks with his neighbors Amy and Charles. The elevator offers a pleasing background.
Living alone, Theodore plays holographic videogames at night.
Elements Software promotes — and Theodore watches an ad for — the “first intelligent operating system,” OS One, an operating system that possesses an intuitive understanding and consciousness.
Samantha, Theodore’s OS One, rouses Theodore from his depression.
Enjoying himself at the beach with Samantha, Theodore takes pleasure in a beautiful sunset.
The romantic Theodore stands, with Samantha in his pocket, at the bow of a boat.
With Samantha’s romantic music playing in the background, Theodore encounters a whimsical street performer.
Theodore’s world is consistently pleasant. At a party for the 4-year old Jocelyn, the outfits of Theodore and Jocelyn match the colors of the flowers behind them.
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, [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:
Descartes was hardly the sole advocate of this dualism. 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” 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,” 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. 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,” 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. 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
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. 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.
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.
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. 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:
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.” 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
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:
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:
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,
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.