WE LIVE IN AN AGE of contradictions. Thanks to mass media and the Internet, we can communicate instantaneously with anyone, at any time, in any country. Despite this, we in the Western world have never felt more isolated and alone, finding it more and more difficult to connect with our fellow man. In the United States, approximately 60 million people are suggested to be feeling lonely, and in Japan, the hikikomori – men so reclusive they remain locked in their bedrooms for years at a time – are a growing demographic. Today, we are forced to confront the reality of communication in a society that increasingly seeks to eschew face-to-face contact for the impersonal comfort of text. It is something addressed by Her (Dir: Spike Jonze, 2013), a clever soft sci-fi film about a lonely man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquín Phoenix) who falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system (Scarlett Johansson). It is the task of all good science-fiction films to contain within their story and theming some sort of message or observation about modern society or the human condition, hidden behind futuristic and alien settings.
Her, though set in a near-future Los Angeles in which AI and communication technology has continued to advance, can therefore be said to address the modern preoccupation with social media, the increasing number of relationships conducted online, from a distance, and the implications that has for the way we interact and empathise with other people. It is neither didactic nor moralising: instead, you are led to sympathise with Theodore, a man freshly divorced, who seems to have forgotten – or never truly understood – how to relate to the people around him. His relationship with the AI, however, rather than painting him as a sad, pathetic shell, stands in for the profundity available even to a relationship shared over a long distance, even one as immeasurably large as that in Her. Though communicated entirely over the Internet, Theodore and his virtual girlfriend are able to experience something as real as any two humans. The film does not give them a unanimous endorsement. There is a general unease from the many of the other characters as to the legitimacy of the relationship (though thankfully, the film does not dwell on this theme; any attempt to introduce an allegory for same-sex relationships would feel out of place), and there is something fundamentally absent between the two, which becomes clear as their lack of genuine intimacy leads to their unravelling.
Ultimately, the lonely world wins out. Although the film ends with a twinge of hope as Theodore and Amy Adams’ characters watch the sunrise together, the prognosis remains bleak. Perhaps, with many of us choosing to conduct relationships entirely online across long-distances, we, like Her‘s AI, are slowly losing a part of our humanity, a part of ability to communicate and to empathise. That is what the film asks: how far are we willing to sacrifice that for all the conveniences and advantages that embracing technology brings us. Her is smart, stylish, and profound, and a timely entry into the sci-fi canon.