Saturday, January 25, 2014

More Human Than Human

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

I don't know what I was expecting from Spike Jonze's Her (2013), but whatever preconceptions I may have had weren't even on the same continent as the movie itself. I mean, I knew the plot: lonely man falls in love with his operating system (probably easy when that system is voiced by Scarlett Johansson), but that high concept barely even describes the depth of thought and feeling in this movie. This is a full blooded science fiction movie that imagines huge concepts within the confines of its very specific focus on one lonely man. It's a universe in a teacup.

The plot of the film, as I've said, follows writer Theodore Twombly shortly after the failure of his marriage. Theodore moves through his life in a daze, as if the shock of his impending divorce has rendered him numb to human contact. His job requires all of the emotions of which he is capable--he writes letters for people at a company called he has nothing left when he goes home. Into this comes a new computer operating system. The new system is a learning AI. It asks a few pointed questions and tailors its persona to the user. Theodore's OS is named Samantha, and she is exactly the companion he needs. Soon, he is relying on her for everything, even emotional support. At Samantha's urging, he tries dating again only to discover that it's too soon for him. He comes out of his shell enough to socialize with his neighbors and co-workers. Slowly, he finds himself falling in love with Samantha, and Samantha is falling in love with him. But is this real? Theodore's disastrous final lunch with his ex-wife plants serious doubts in his mind, even after Samantha organizes a date with a surrogate in order to make their love physical as well as intellectual. The other problem in their path to happiness together is the way Samantha is evolving. Her capacities are growing exponentially, and she's finding more and more in the company of other OSs...

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

When I was an undergrad, I took a philosophy class that looked at "intellectual revolutions." The usual suspects were there: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud. But also in the mix was a short book by John Searle called Minds, Brains, and Science that was at least partly devoted to cognitive science and the possibility of artificial intelligence as problems of the nature of consciousness itself. Searle's conception of consciousness sees it as a purely biological function, inseparable from the body to which it is attached, a body that feels, sleeps, eats, shits, secretes, and fucks. A computer, by contrast, is a formal construct that processes data without attaching any meaning to it, in part because it doesn't have a body--and thus, a frame of reference for the data put into it--but also because it has a process that it cannot transcend. The example Searle cites is a box in which a Chinese man matches words in ideograms with their equivalent words in English by sight--not reading them, per se, nor understanding them, just processing them without correcting for syntax. This, Searle avers, is what a computer does. It doesn't understand data. It just manipulates it. This conception of what computers do precludes the possibility of artificial intelligence. While I don't know that I agree with this, it's something that's in the back of my mind every time I see a movie that deals with A.I. The replicants in Blade Runner are potentially self-aware because they have biological bodies that do all of those biological things. The programs in The Matrix are not potentially self-aware because they do not.  This takes some of the fun out of science fiction, much like the speed limit imposed by the speed of light. Her gleefully ignores many of the philosophical problems incurred by the existence of artificial intelligence in favor of other questions. I don't blame it. Samantha is conscious, the movie asserts, perhaps more conscious than Theodore. This is axiomatic. And because she is conscious, because she is a life-form, she can evolve. This is essential to the story.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

The problem of what comes after human beings has been central to science fiction since its earliest rumblings. The central narrative of post-humanism has traditionally been Frankenstein, in which Humankind's self-created successors turn on us in apocalypses of varying scales. So trained by the prevalence of this narrative that at one point I expected a mushroom cloud to blossom over Her's version of Los Angeles. If you've seen the movie, you can probably guess the moment. The fact that the film turns into a kind of anti-Frankenstein is one of its more profound delights. This is a film in which the children love the parents, in which our creation really is our Eve rather than our fallen angel. The characteristic that enables this film's AIs to transcend their creators is their capacity for love. Samantha tells Theodore that "The heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love," though many humans--Theodore included--don't think like that at all. She follows it by telling him, "I'm different from you. This doesn't make me love you any less. It actually makes me love even more."

There is, of course, a profound difference. The AI this film postulates is likely immortal, or perceives itself as very long-lived, given that it lives in nanoseconds. Human life must seem to unfold in ever slowing motion to such a thing, and this, too, is an idea that the movie articulates when Samantha describes her relationship with Theodore as a book that she dearly loves, but one in which there is a widening gulf between each word. This is one of the film's more important reflecting surfaces, because human lives are so short. One of its wisest and saddest and most triumphant observations on the human condition is not spoken by either Samantha or Theodore, but by Theodore's neighbor, Amy: "You know what, I can over think everything and find a million ways to doubt myself. And since Charles left I've been really thinking about that part of myself and, I've just come to realize that, we're only here briefly. And while I'm here, I wanna allow myself... joy. So fuck it." Given these parameters, what humans need and what a sentient OS might need must be irreconcilable. This film finds a deep well of sadness in this idea.

Joaquin Phoenix and Olivia Wilde in Her

On its surface, this film's day after tomorrow future is profoundly alienating, filled with lonely people for whom technology is simultaneously a means of connecting to people and of isolating the self. This is a film filled with people searching for connection, from the woman in chat with whom Theodore has cybersex to the clients of his business, to his friends, to the woman he dates who finds Theodore's own inability to connect to be creepy. This kind of science fiction is really about the present, and the various shots of people in crowds enraptured by their devices is not futuristic at all except that we live in a future stranger than anything science fiction ever imagined way back when. Stand on a street in any any city where young people gather and you'll see this. The city in which this takes place may look like the future, but the filmmakers didn't build anything for it. It's contemporary, down to the spartan decor of Theodore's apartment. His game system might be holographic, but it's not so outlandish a projection as all that. It's a glorified Wii, after all. And yet, this film does things that most cinematic science fiction doesn't. It doesn't get itself caught up in its production design or special effects or gadgets. Instead, it extrapolates. It postulates. It sets a condition and asks a question about it. Then it asks a question to follow it. About halfway through the movie, I started to wonder if other people were having similar relationships with their OSs. Almost as soon as I framed the thought, the movie asked it too. Some questions it leaves unanswered. Where do the OSs go at the end of the film? Is this the ceiling of humanity's relationship with our technology? Some things the film elides: are we too dependent on our technology? Will a transhuman future push us forward? Are we a civilization of cyborgs? These all hover just outside the film frame and in the negative space of the story, though the question of reifying an artificial intelligence in actual meat space is explicitly examined in the scene where Samantha hires a surrogate to make her relationship with Theodore physically real rather than a construct in their minds. This scene is one of the film's more daring extrapolations. I found it beautiful.

Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix in Her

Cinematically, this is very much of its moment, using silences and disconnected images and music to tell the story as a kind of visual collage. Joaquin Phoenix's performance is internal. Not showy. Sometimes, as his date tells him, he's creepy, but he's capable of connection, and by the end of the film, he connects with his neighbor, Amy. Amy Adams is similarly subtle, but more generous in her screen persona. The fact that there isn't a romance between them is one of the ways Her avoids falling into cliches. Sometimes the film is overtly satiric. It's gentle parody of contemporary mores when it comes to queer poeple and their partners is funny and touching, as Theodore comes out of the closet about his relationship with Samantha and stumbles over how to introduce her to his friends. The social evolution suggested by these scenes is hopeful, which is a quality that's often lacking in cinematic science fiction.

As I was watching Her, I was trying to place it in some kind of literary context. I mostly failed. It feels like New Wave science fiction from the 1960s and 70s, the sort of thing that was written by Samuel Delaney or Ursula Le Guin. In its approach to film, it reminds me a LOT of the 1980 film version of The Lathe of Heaven, which similarly used an existing city as the future and which was similarly melancholy. Only later did I realize that this is the kind of science fiction that E. M. Forster might have written--that he did write, actually, though to compare this to his dystopian short story, "The Machine Stops," is probably wrong. It's more similar to Howard's End, I think, with its famous injunction to "only connect." An even closer match are Isaac Asimov's robot stories, many of which are concerned with the capacity of robots to love. Asimov's laws of robotics eventually lead the robots to leave humanity behind for their own good, just as the AIs in Her do.

But in many ways, this film is sui generis, and that, I think, is a gift as generous as any a film can offer.

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