Spike Jonze’s Her holds up ten years later

“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the car but the traffic jam,” author Frederik Pohl once wrote. AI has been the subject of sci-fi for so long that it’s almost cliché. Decades before anything resembling grand language models appeared, creative minds had deftly imagined what a world populated by artificial minds would look like, from Metropolis Unpleasant 2001: A space odyssey, usually as thinking, feeling, loving robots of some sort. But what is AI’s traffic jam?

In lesser works, injecting serious contemporary issues into a plot often results in a heavy-handed, moralizing allegory. It paints a persistently pessimistic future. Films in particular are concerned with our relationship to AI, whether romantic or familial. But even many well-received AI-related films from the past decade Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049, After Yangand who knows, M3GAN – may be decent in their own right, but offer few insights into AI itself.

The exception that comes to mind is older than those films and also, arguably, hotter: Spike Jonze’s Her. Upon re-watching it, I found that this pre-AlphaGo film holds up beautifully and still offers a wealth of insights. It also doesn’t shy away from the dark and inevitably complicated feelings we’ll have toward AI, which Jonze first expressed more than a decade ago.

The question we should ask is not, “How are they going to slaughter us?” but “What insecurities might they have?”

Set in near-future Los Angeles, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man named Theodore Twombly. In the middle of a divorce, he buys an operating system that resembles a virtual assistant. (“It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness,” says the voice in the ad.) Upon awakening, the operating system calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and the two begin to develop an emotional bond. Unlike most Hollywood portrayals of AI, Her confines Johansson to the realm of the voice, rather than giving it a corporeal form, trusting that the audience will understand the appeal even if it is not physical. One day, Samantha arranges a blind date to help Theodore overcome his loneliness. The night ends badly and while lying in bed, Theodore and Samantha confess their feelings for each other. After what can be described as phone sex, their romance begins. Although Johansson herself never appears on screen, her husky, sandpaper-like voice sonically – yet vividly – ​​renders a kind of portrait in absentia.

Jonze understands that when we imagine human-like AI, the question we should ask is not, “How are they going to slaughter us?” but “What insecurities might they have?” For Samantha, much of her fear comes from her lack of a physical form. As she fantasizes about walking next to Theodore, she experiences the full-body equivalent of phantom limb syndrome. “I felt the weight of my body and even fantasized that I had an itch on my back,” she confides. “And I imagined you scratching it for me.” Jonze imagines Samantha’s inner trials as someone who begins to ask the kinds of existential questions that only a disembodied operating system can ask. At one point she even exhibits a kind of Cartesian skepticism, doubting the authenticity of the feelings emanating from her electrical signals: “Are these feelings real? Or are they just programming? And that idea really hurts.”

Her desire for physical contact – or perhaps her fear that Theodore will see its absence as a flaw in their relationship – leads to a believable blunder (this is Jonze’s traffic jam) when she brings in a surrogate for Theodore to caress while Samantha syncs her voice with the movements of the body double. Anyone with a physical form would intuitively understand that this proposal won’t work – it drives Theodore crazy, and then the couple gets into a fight – but it’s an understandable move for a disembodied AI.

Another exemplary touch from Jonze is a scene where Samantha and Theodore are on a beach. Samantha wants to capture the moment, but photos aren’t enough. (Because Theodore is carrying her in a phone-like device, it looks like he’s on the beach with a phone.) So what does she do? She composes a piece of music that reflects the atmosphere of the beach. A composition of pixels, Samantha shows, is not the only way to immortalize a memory.

While Theodore was drawn to Samantha’s childlike sense of wonder, as the film progresses, her eagerness to learn about the world transforms her – and other operating systems – into something far more advanced than mere AI assistants. Samantha also reveals that even when she is with Theodore, she is communicating with other operating systems at the same time, talking to thousands of other people and, devastatingly for Theodore, has fallen in love with hundreds of them. With a mix of perhaps pity and courtesy, Samantha and other operating systems decide to leave the humans. For Theodore, who makes his living writing letters, the greatest tragedy of advanced AI may not be the loss of jobs, but that it gains access to your heart and then destroys it. (A break with AI might as well be a Pohlian car crash.) Who could have imagined in 2013 that a story about auditory sex with a girl-Linux would seem so prescient a decade later?

Films that came after Her wouldn’t last either. I cringed as I watched Alex Garland again Ex Machina, a film with a similar setup: a sensitive man falls in love with a female AI. A programmer named Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is selected by a Playboy technology mogul (Oscar Isaac) to evaluate an AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander). They perform a version of the Turing Test in which, unlike the original where the interlocutor is hidden, you interact with Ava, who has a mechanical body and yet is so human-like that she will convince you that she has consciousness – an intriguing twist. Garland’s dialogue, however, consists of faux-profound riffs about machine consciousness and dorm-room philosophizing about Jackson Pollock.

While Her is richly thematized by Samantha’s bodylessness, Ex Machina is trapped in the well-worn Oedipal theme common to AI films, namely that a creation must kill its creator. After stabbing a sushi knife into the tech billionaire who just fatally attacked his robot girl (played by Sonoya Mizuno, who doesn’t deserve such a fate), our ghost escapes. I think the movie used to be trying to show the audience that Ava is indeed conscious. The problem, however, is that the two male characters are so unimaginatively caricatured – a girly programmer and a misogynistic alpha male – that she is never challenged enough to show her complex humanity in the face of those simple beings. (They probably wouldn’t pass the Turing test.) And Caleb seems compelled to free her, not because he was convinced by her humanity, but by her femininity.

I was also embarrassed by the unnecessary display of unclothed female bodies Ex Machinawhile Her is a much sexier movie without even to show sex. The ending of the film, in which two men are punished by Ava, seems like a cheap attempt to establish Garland’s feminist credentials. But it ultimately sells her short because it reduces her to a manipulative murder robot.

Looks more like a human out of his Lexapro than a clever imagination of the artificial mind

Denis Villeneuve Blade Runner 2049, which is mostly a fine cyberpunk film, plays into the same tropes in its portrayal of AI intimacy, although here it’s between two robots. Early on, the film makes a common misstep when portraying non-human characters: creating one with a psychological makeup identical to that of a human, with a touch of predictable animatronic behavior – speaking on a flat tone, emotionally reserved, or socially awkward. So what we get is a melancholic K (Ryan Gosling), who looks more like a human out of his Lexapro than a clever imagination of the artificial mind.

K is accompanied by Joi, a holographic ingénue played by Ana de Armas, who floats around K like Tinkerbell as he completes his missions. What’s unconvincing isn’t K’s love for Joi, the AI ​​girlfriend — it’s common knowledge that humans can even love a pillowcase if it has lovely characters on it — but Joi’s love for K. Why is she so special dedicated to K? (“I always knew you were special,” she says, and leaves it at that.) It turns out that Joi is a mass-produced software product, pre-programmed to serve its owner, while for Samantha, romantic love was never in her specifications, but naturally developed. Joi’s love is inevitable, while Samantha’s is incidental, and therefore all the more believable.

Like it Her, the film features a scene where Joi invites a real person, Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), to start a threesome. But not like HerUnfortunately, it happens. As Joi struggles to superimpose her hologram over Mariette’s physical body, we see De Armas’ face flicker and emerge onto Davis’, while Gosling still looks at it with a serotonin deficiency. A puzzling scene; I didn’t know whether to find it sexy, shocking, grotesque, funny, or all of the above.

Representing intimacy with AI offers plenty of room for more research. For example, what would female desire for AI characters look like? Intimate relationships don’t have to be romantic. Perhaps AI agents are less interested in arbitrary bonds like parental relationships – you never chose them and vice versa – and more in deliberately cultivated bonds like friendships. (Although Her focuses on a relationship that reads as heterosexual, but also suggests a more vague intimacy between Amy Adams’ character and her female-coded AI.)

The way forward for AI-themed work is to interrogate basic but fundamental questions. How should we conceptualize non-human consciousness? What does psychological realism actually mean if characters are artificially intelligent? (For my money, Plutoa 2004 manga – a reinterpretation of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy – is a good example of this.)

Filmmakers should also understand that there is nothing inherently naive about a non-antagonistic view of AI, but the use of default cynicism is. It helps to remember that when it comes to cloning – a once popular topic in the early aughts – the epitome of the genre is Kazuo Ishiguro’s tender novel. Never let me go again, not the one with, say, a vengeful army of doppelgängers. Miserabilistic, catastrophic stories are easier to concoct than Jonze’s generously imagined future, in which AI is a sympathetic, dignified being – not an angel of death but a searching soul.

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