Spike Jonze’s Her and the limits of technology

Josh Larsen

One of the many intriguing things about Her, a futuristic romantic drama from director Spike Jonze, is its healthy view of technology. Whereas many science-fiction films see technical innovation as one path to perfection (consider the Star Trek franchise), Her recognizes that technology won’t be able to save us.

At the beginning of Her, it seems as if an advanced computer operating system has saved Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). Wounded from a recent divorce, Theodore has retreated into a solitary world of video games and playlists. (“Play another melancholy song,” he mumbles into his smartphone while commuting home from work.) Then along comes Samantha – not a woman, but an artificially intelligent operating system that organizes Theodore’s life and, eventually, falls in love with him.

Indeed, as Samantha’s understanding of human behavior expands and her desire for connection becomes palpable (I might add here that she’s voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the two fall for each other. It’s a development that Jonze and his actors make utterly believable, largely by allowing intimate conversation to be the building block of their relationship.

So far, so humanistic, no? Wouldn’t the ability to invent relationship be a crucial step toward inventing human perfection? Yet for all the advances it convincingly chronicles, Her ultimately finds its humanity in brokenness. After their initial whirlwind romance, Theodore and Samantha hit a few familiar stumbling blocks, thereby revealing something bittersweet about fallen, human relationships: they often don’t “feel real” until they’ve fractured.

For all the technological advances it convincingly chronicles, Her ultimately finds its humanity in brokenness.

A melancholy song itself (faded pastels dominate the color scheme), Her is content to sit in this sadness, where hurt is an inescapable part of being human. Though it rejects salvation by technology, the movie doesn’t take the next step - to recognize that we were meant for real relationship and that God is at work to restore our relationships, both with Him and each other.

That’s a comfort worth keeping in mind as we consider real-world advances in artificial intelligence. Writing earlier on Think Christian about the Singularity – the predicted point at which artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence – Jason Summers offered a Her-like sense of balance:

Attempting to overcome death through technological means is hardly new; it is a central theme in the oldest written text, and one echoed through much of Genesis. But Genesis also establishes the cultural mandate, which affirms the inherent good of human technological endeavors. A Biblical view holds these two in tension, recognizing human beings as co-creators with God and yet creatures subject to our Lord.

Can technology enhance our relationships? It does in the fictional future of Her. It also does in the here and now, particularly through social media. Will it one day perfect relationships by offering perfect facsimiles? For perfection, we need not a new OS, but the world to come.

Topics: Movies, Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Technology, Arts & Leisure