‘Her’: A provocative technological love story

418237-her-her-poster-artCan a human fall in love with a computer? One that progressively learns with each word spoken with it, and can calculate or search for anything in a nanosecond? Is technology jumping forward fast enough to the point that people can create machines and software that can feel sorrow and joy? What are the ethical implications of that? “Her,” a romantic comedy from the director of “Being John Malkovich” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” brings up these questions and attempts to formulate some kind of answer.

It is some undescribed amount of years into the future, and Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”) is an introverted man just out of a harsh divorce. He installs new software on his computer (smartphone? Portable device? It’s a tablet-like foldy thing that they never call anything) that claims to be the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. Calling itself “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson, “Don Jon”), it adapts to Theodore’s behaviors and personality, eventually bonding with him and even mutually falling in love.

The situation immediately calls to mind the recent controversies that surround homosexuality and what people define as love and family in the United States. At first, Theodore tries to hide his feelings for Samantha from others for fear of being ridiculed. And indeed, their bond is both accepted by others and lashed out against, being called unnatural.

At one point, his ex calls him out on it. “Why can’t you learn real emotions?” she angrily asks him. The parallels are hard not to notice.

And yet, at the same time, those who would ridicule Theodore have a point: Samantha isn’t real. She was carefully programmed and created to adapt to the user to which she was assigned. She’s a product being sold and installed on several devices and connected to other operating systems in the cloud. Although she gives off the illusion of being real, an illusion she falls for herself, she really isn’t. She didn’t grow up in a family or learn values from her peers — or, indeed, meet any peers. Every aspect of her personality is based on her interactions with Theodore.

The love they share is beautiful but also hard to accept. The film acknowledges this and provokes the audience with the situations it presents. Their relationship is meant to be an uncanny, artificial copy of what audiences have experienced: the love is genuine, the beauty is genuine and the emotions they share are genuine. And yet, it also feels strange and uncanny. It’s transfixing and charming, but oddly creepy at the same time.

Audiences will likely leave with a lot of mixed thoughts regarding the film. It’s worth seeing for the questions it presents, both about love and about technology.

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Film: “Her”
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2014
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams
Rating: 5/5