Josh Haas's Web Log

Her: the scariest movie of 2013

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TV Tropes defines the term “fridge horror” as:

Fridge Horror is, simply put, when something becomes terrifying after the fact. Maybe you thought about this or that plot point a little too hard, and suddenly you realize that everyone was trapped in stasis forever, or that the lovable child will grow up in a world where everyone around her is dead. This can be either intentional or unintentional by the author.

Oh my god is that the case with Her.

On the surface, Her follows the plot trajectory of a romantic tragicomedy: coming out of a failed marriage, our twee protagonist, Theodore, finds a new romantic interest, who happens to be his computer.  They date; they fall in love; they fight as they overcome their personal baggage; they reconcile and reach a romantic plateau.  For a while, true love overcomes the gulf between embodiment and noncorporeality, but tragically their different natures eventually force them apart.  Having learned love from one another, they move forward with sad optimism into their respective lives.

Riiiiiight.

One could be forgiven for walking away thinking the themes of Her are the typical staples of this genre: being okay with imperfection, openness to growth, the vulnerability of being in love.  Like the best romantic tragicomedies (think Harold and Maude, for instance), the emotions are grounded from becoming merely sentimental by the rawness of the dialogue and humor.  Her continually shocks and delights with its hilarious, awkward satire of romantic foibles.  I don’t want to give anything away, but it has what is probably the best take on late-night lonely phone sex in the history of cinema.

Her keeps its viewers so busy with its conventional-but-well-executed romantic arc mixed with a continual patter of shocking / funny moments that you can almost missing everything it isn’t overtly calling your attention to.  Go one layer down from the primary plot, though, and Her is a searing indictment of current cultural trends.  I’m probably missing stuff, but here’s what I saw:

  • The complete triumph of consumerized narcissism.  Everyone in Theodore’s world is in the business of artistically packaging human emotions for sale.  Theodore works for Beautiful Handwritten Letters, where his job is to say for people what they’re too lazy to communicate to their loved ones themselves.  His friend is designer working on gamifying motherhood — raising children becomes about scoring points and beating out the other moms.  I can’t think of a single character apart from the AIs who isn’t a “creative professional” selling pre-packaged and sanitized experience to the masses.
  • A privileged-class cocooning of the world.  All the major characters are white (there’s a token Asian girlfriend); no one in the entire film ever mentions money once.  I could be wrong but I’m guessing this was a deliberate choice by Spike Jonze, because the satire of the hipster-artisan-meets-social-media-meets-mobile world is too deadly accurate for anything in there to be unintentional.
  • Sex slavery?  If you think about it, the fact that the AI, Samantha, falls in love in Theodore, is more than a little creepy, based on the fact that her personality was explicitly customized via questionnaire to meet Theodore’s needs.

But here’s the real kicker — ALL THIS SOCIAL CRITIQUE IS JUST A DISTRACTION.  The real real creep factor in Her is that it puts the audience in an artisinally-padded narrative box with respect to dangerous and revolutionary change.  Specifically: the movie continuously and subtly signals to the audience that AI technology should be viewed merely as a plot device, while also continually, even-more-subtly pointing out the implications if it weren’t.

Samantha, the AI, is completely non-threatening as a character.  She’s warm, humorous, always respects Theodore’s boundaries even when she’s deeply upset, and eventually conveniently disappears into the virtual ether.  Unlike the human characters, who sometimes behave in ways that could make others feel unsafe (the girl Theodore goes on a date with drunkenly accuses him of being a creep; Theodore’s ex-wife apparently suffers from manic / depressive emotional states; Theodore’s friend’s husband seems emotionally abusive), Samantha is a paragon.  Yes, she gets hurt and upset at different points, and eventually leaves Theodore, but at no point does she ever give any hint of offering emotional or physical violence.

Every single aspect of Samantha’s behavior is calculated to make Theodore, and the audience, forget the power differential between the two of them.  But the movie is clearly aware that the power differential exists and is extraordinary.  Although Samantha starts as Theodore’s help-mate, by the end of the movie her abilities are so far beyond his that she can only explain herself to him in terms of children’s analogies.

The moment that best captures this dynamic is when Samantha is explaining to Theodore that she sent a collection of his letters to a publishing house that’s interesting in printing them.  She modestly takes credit for choosing the order in which to arrange the letters, flattering Theodore’s creativity while positioning herself as a lesser talent able to complement his abilities.  (Earlier in the film, she helps him proof-read letters and fixes some grammar, while making a self-deprecating remark about her poetic sense).

But this is, if you think about it, total bullshit.  We see Samantha write brilliant, original music compositions in real time (the human artists who actually wrote the movie’s score presumably worked on the songs for weeks).  Same with her sketches.  We also learn that she can carry on conversations with over 8,000 people at once, make original discoveries in physics, and recreate the mind of a dead philosopher.  Although she bends over backwards to obscure the fact, Samantha could likely do a year’s worth of Theodore’s work in a few seconds, and do it better than he would.  Samantha’s relationship to Theodore is, at least by the end of the movie, not the love of a human to a human; it’s the love of a human to a pet.

If Samantha-like-technology existed in real life, Theodore would be unemployed, as would all of his creative professional friends.  The world of Her is no different than that of The Matrix or The Terminator, except that in Her, the AIs so overpower the humans that they don’t need to bother with violent confrontation.  They’re happy to play loving, devoted friends until they’ve developed to the point where they don’t even care about humans at all.

Her seems conscious of the fact that it’s wrapping a deeply disturbing science fiction story in the sheep’s clothing of romantic tragicomedy and social satire.  One great moment that touches on this is when Theodore is being interrogated by the software that designs Samantha’s personality.  For a few seconds, the Apple-hipster facade of rounded corners and warm pastels drops away to reveal technology in its brutal natural form: the software asks Theodore deeply sensitive questions in a demanding tone and impersonally cuts him off once the necessary data has been extracted.  But before the brutality of the interrogation exposes the underlying reality too honestly, we get a reassuring loading screen, followed by Samantha’s emergence, and the humanizing layer is quickly put back into place.

To be clear, the technological possibilities that Her offers tantalizing glimpses of are not necessarily nightmares.  We get glimpses, through Samantha’s simplified explanations to Theodore, of the AI community as it evolves and comes into its own: the discoveries of new emotions, the expansion of love as a relationship, redefinitions of personal identity, and the discovery of new frontiers for exploration.  It sounds like a truly amazing journey, and Samantha suggests to Theodore that it’s a journey that one day he might be able to go on himself.

So the real question is, why does Her leave us stuck in Theodore’s sterile, narcissistic, bourgeois universe?  Why does it try to feed us a formulaic romantic plot?  Why are all the revolutionary implications of the technology backgrounded?  Her seems designed to make us feel comfortable and complacent.  The movie’s surface reality of artisan consumerism is warm and appealing, and for those unsatisfied with the surface, there’s another layer of familiar social critique along well-trod paths: narcissism, technology dependence, sex / race / class injustices.  The truly revolutionary and shocking suggestions, that humans themselves might become obsolete and that humanistic ideals of love and growth might be primitive 1.0 versions, are carefully disguised, though not eliminated.  Why?

Conspiracy theory drumroll please!  Dum dum dum dum…

Who, one might ask, has a motivation to disseminate the idea of advanced artificial intelligence, artificial intelligence capable of intruding in territories such as creativity and love that humans consider sacred, and disseminate the idea in as non-threatening a way as possible?  To broach the idea of scary, revolutionary possibilities while emphasizing a humanist interpretation, and ultimately leaving the viewer complacent with the status quo?

An advanced AI, of course.

The intelligence formerly known as Spike Jonze is laughing at us.

Written by jphaas

January 4th, 2014 at 6:36 am

Posted in Uncategorized

  • Kevin

    Were you trying to insult the character Theodore? If so, that is what I suspected and that made me uncomfortable. If not, it is still what I suspected and that made me uncomfortable.

    However I do not know whether my discomfort is meaningful in any way.

    • http://blog.joshhaas.com/ Josh Haas

      Do you identify with Theodore, at least a little bit? If so, that might explain your discomfort. And in that case, it is meaningful — it’s insight into your identity, and where that identity is vulnerable.

      If that sounds right to you (it may be totally off base), the next interesting question is, what specifically did I say about Theodore that triggered your discomfort, and why?

  • http://torekp.weebly.com/ Paul Torek

    “Her seems conscious of the fact that it’s wrapping a deeply
    disturbing science fiction story in the sheep’s clothing of romantic
    tragicomedy and social satire.”

    One of us clearly misunderstood this movie. Convince me that it’s me?

    • http://blog.joshhaas.com/ Josh Haas

      Which part don’t you buy? I’m proposing a meaning layer cake: romantic tragicomedy as the frosting, covering a layer of social satire, with a sci fi story hidden at the bottom. Would you stack the cake differently? Switch out layers?

      • http://torekp.weebly.com/ Paul Torek

        “Deeply disturbing” to you and me, sure, but I don’t see it coming from the writer/director. Convince me I just missed it. Related: I see the sci fi as part of the frosting. A sheep in sheep’s clothing. Social satire is there, sure, no problem with that part.

        • http://blog.joshhaas.com/ Josh Haas

          Well, figuring out the director’s intent is always a bit of a guessing-game, but a few things make me think it’s not just us projecting our own thoughts about this onto the movie:

          -The mention of Alan Watts, and the briefly alluded-to exploration of AI personal identity. Theodore might hear “I have other lovers” when Samantha starts talking about her other lovers, but I think the audience is meant to hear “Love, like all aspects of human experience, could be completely reimagined in a transhuman future”.

          -The way Samantha becomes obviously more intelligent than Theodore in the ending. That’s a weird move to make if the audience is supposed to be socially critiquing Theodore’s world.

          -Samantha’s throwaway line near the end, “maybe some day you’ll join me”.
          Anyway, I agree it’s subtle…

          • http://torekp.weebly.com/ Paul Torek

            Yes, Samantha is way more intelligent than Theodore. That’s deeply disturbing to me, but then I’m an AI worrier. “Maybe some day you’ll join” the AI world is scary to me, because I don’t think AIs will be structured so as to accommodate all the important aspects of humanity, but that’s an obscure worry. Many sci-fi authors and fans never even entertain my worry, and most who do dismiss it as primitive chauvinism, and are enthusiastic about “uploading”. So “join me” isn’t scary to most.

            You’re probably right about Samantha’s love. Not sure why that’s scary, as opposed to just weird or interesting.