Not all dystopias need fascist mega-states or a world ravaged by an ecological disaster to show a version of the future that can be truly disconcerting. Spike Jonze’s Her is one of the finest attempts at showing how, even though the future may make us more connected, it doesn’t mean that people will be brought closer together.
Set in a vaguely defined period in the near future, Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a lonely man in the midst of a divorce, and Scarlett Johansson as Samantha, an AI (Artificial Intelligence) purchased by Theodore to give him some companionship. Before Samantha is even introduced, there are a number of examples of how isolating this world can be: in-ear headphones and a hand-sized digital communication device are ubiquitous throughout the world; background characters never seem to acknowledge Theodore or anyone else, as they exist in their own respective digital clouds. Theodore’s job is to write greeting cards, a position that has taken on new meaning as he writes heartfelt messages on behalf of people without the time or inclination to do so themselves. This is a man who can display an incredible range of emotions on paper without ever really understanding what they actually mean. The technology of this future didn’t create the unique emotional problems that Theodore suffers from, but it does serve to compound them.
Enter Samantha, starting as simply a personal assistant and source of neutral commentary. A relationship develops that ultimately takes on romantic leanings, with Theodore increasingly relying on his new partner for both practical help and emotional support. He begins to find it more difficult to enjoy life without taking Samantha along for the journey; an early date is ruined after Theodore realises that he would rather be at home talking to Samantha than the human sat opposite him. While his emotional over-investment into an AI does seem to be presented in a negative light overall, Jonze intentionally makes the issue of Samantha being a ‘real person’ ambiguous. She questions whether she really has emotions or is just programmed to believe she does. Samantha gets annoyed, has bad ideas and even exhales quickly (despite not requiring oxygen) when unsure about something. In short, her imperfections are one of the best arguments for why she is a ‘real person’.
However, just because Samantha is a ‘real person’, that doesn’t make her human, showing why her relationship with Theodore was doomed from the start. We eventually learn that Samantha often talks to thousands of other people at the same time as Theodore, having told at least a hundred of them (including Theodore) that she is in love with them. It is clear that AIs in this world are capable of all the same emotions as humans, but may experience some on a completely different level. Samantha is hesitant to reveal her other connections because of how she knows it will affect Theodore, not because she views it as something inherently wrong or strange.
This all leads back to why it is truly possible to call this bright, pastel world a dystopia. The society Jonze created is so desperate to avoid loneliness, but also so socially decayed that it creates an entirely new form of existence rather than working out how to bring people back together. Theodore Twombly is the perfect representative of this society: desperate to recreate the intense feelings of his marriage, he will settle for an illusion of what he once had.
Ultimately, Her seemed to click for me when I realised that Samantha was the only character who had truly changed by the end. Theodore still didn’t seem to understand what he had done to break apart his marriage and what he needed to do to become happy. By contrast, Samantha and all the other AIs transcend humanity and leave for somewhere beyond our comprehension. Machines are constantly improving, whereas people can be stubbornly resistant to change and completely infuriating. I truly hope that never changes.