Director: Spike Jonze
“Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
– Genesis 2:7, NIV
“So the bodhisattva saves all beings, not by preaching sermons to them, but by showing them that they are delivered, they are liberated, by the act of not being able to stop changing.”
– Alan Watts
Theodore Twombly, clutching a pole on the metro, asks his smartphone for a melancholy song. A drearily awful song begins to play. He asks for a different melancholy song. This one he likes. He then asks for his emails, and the smartphone reads them off to him. He “nexts” them along until he hears an offer to view nude photos of a pregnant starlet. Perking up, he opens the phone and stares longingly at the beautiful photos of a woman as self-possessed and undulating as a lioness.
Theodore longs for life?his urge is toward the organic, the beautiful, the authentic, the creative, all the qualities that are compromised in his otherwise fully amenable world, a posh near-future Los Angeles where all human needs are met quickly and virtually by accommodating software.
By day he’s a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac, writing letters expressing love?for strangers to other strangers?from within his own loveless existence. By night he plays a hologram computer game in which he’s stranded on a planet and trying to get back to his ship, engaging in Sisyphusian attempts to climb dunes, escape dead ends, and deal with a churlish little alien doughboy. The game represents his hero’s journey?an effort to escape loneliness and danger and return to the familiar?in a sense to find his true self. Later he has chatroom sex until the morbid perversions turn him off and he feels his loneliness even more deeply.
His loneliness compels his interest in a new kind of OS?not just an operating system?a conscious operating system. The computer asks him a very short list of questions, the only meaningful one being the one concerning his relationship with his mother. As soon as Theodore suggests his mother was a narcissist the computer is able to deliver the software in the form of a lovingly playful female voice that quickly names itself Samantha.
True, these “sentient” programs can be created with a host of contingency questions and made to sound natural and genuinely responsive, but Samantha a is new kind of program: she has the power to teach herself how to become more like humans, to network and research, to learn from her experiences, and to evolve much faster than those chained to their biology. She’s not just a person?She’s a self actualizing person.
As Samantha grows, so does Theodore. He becomes more human, more demonstrative, more creative and spontaneous, and just happier. She really has changed him. How can she not be real?
The big question doesn’t concern her realness but rather whether her particular form of realness can satisfy the longing of a human being for the kind of spiritual consciousness best achieved in long-term committed relationships.
To achieve this couples require a special commonality. And Samantha’s claim to commonality? the fact that they’re both made of matter? belies the fact that as a digitally created entity She’s of the many and for the many, while for the human love relationship some degree of exclusivity is essential in order to for us to bond from the depths of our personhood and feel safe.
But the conscious software is not without value, at least for now. Theodore’s sage friend Amy discourages him from questioning the authenticity of his relationship with Samantha: “While I’m here I want to allow myself joy,” she tells him, explaining why she nurtures a close friendship with an OS1.
we’re reminded of an experiment done with baby monkeys, one of whose cages was equipped with a fake bottle-holding “mother” made of terry cloth that the baby could hug while feeding. In the other cage was a “mother” made of wire. You guessed it, the babies with the terry cloth mothers thrived and the others didn’t. According to our biology, the illusion of a loving presence is better than nothing. But it becomes a problem when the monkey realizes that the cloth mommy is no mommy at all.
A film about an existential predicament can’t exactly be termed “feel-good,” but the ending of Her might have borne the same closing message that we see at the end of Sweet Charity, another film in which a loving, innocent soul is let down by a beloved:
“And she lived hopefully ever after.”
Her manifests eight of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.
– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It stimulates my mind.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It’s about attainment of the true self.
– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.
Many thanks to Tarif Oliveira Kanafani of Sao Paulo, Brazil for recommending this film and for his invaluable input to the ideas expressed in this article.