Discourse about artificial intelligence has a tendency to gravitate toward the utopian and dystopian. On one side are people, typified by Ray Kurzweil, who are breathlessly excited about the projected forthcoming Technological Singularity, which they believe will solve all of humanity’s problems, including death. (Whether humanity as we currently understand it will still exist in this scenario is a subject of considerable debate, but the utopian crowd is generally in favor of any man-machine merger.) On the other side are people, typified by Nick Bostrom, who are genuinely terrified that creating “strong” A.I.—digital intelligence that surpasses the human brain in every possible way while meeting any standard for consciousness and creativity that we can imagine—is the last thing the human race will ever do before being exterminated. Utopians think the dystopians are ridiculously paranoid, while dystopians think the utopians are idiotically blinkered. Both are probably right, since reality is usually somewhere in the middle.
Movies about A.I. tend to favor the dystopian angle, for obvious dramatic reasons. Occasionally, you’ll see a semi-utopian vision featuring one gigantic problem that fuels the narrative—Forbidden Planet falls into that category, and so, to some extent, does 2001: A Space Odyssey. Rarely, though, does a film explore the possibility that aspects of artificial intelligence might turn out to just be really weird and uncomfortable and confusing. That’s why I cherish a particular scene from Her, Spike Jonze’s near-future tale of a nerdy guy named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his computer’s new operating system, which calls itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore and Samantha engage in an equivalent of phone sex, but Samantha wants more—she wants Theodore to be able to touch her, even though she has no physical form. Her solution: hire a surrogate, who’ll provide the body that Samantha lacks during a sexual encounter that Samantha will otherwise be controlling. Theodore is skeptical when Samantha pitches the idea, but he agrees to give it a try, mostly to make her happy. It doesn’t go terribly well.
One of the most interesting choices Jonze made with Her was not giving Samantha any kind of human avatar. Johansson’s husky voice is instantly recognizable, so we tend to imagine her without even trying. (That’s one reason why Johansson was probably a better choice than Samantha Morton, who’d played Samantha on set and in an early cut.) Theodore presumably makes no such mental association, though. And he hasn’t been provided with any other female image—Samantha is always visually represented as simply an orange rectangle, plus abstract shapes like a double helix or a circle. In theory, she could look like anybody. Nonetheless, when the surrogate—whose name, we eventually learn, is Isabella (Portia Doubleday)—shows up at Theodore’s door, he immediately registers her as not-Samantha. That’s true even though Isabella makes a point of not responding to his initial greeting, standing there mutely until he provides her with a tiny mole-camera and earpiece that allow Samantha to take over. She then closes the door and reboots the encounter, this time as Samantha. It’s an approach that seems as if it could theoretically work, and the scene derives its considerable pathos from Theodore’s inability to roll with it, no matter how hard he tries.
Jonze takes care not to indicate what year Her takes place in, but it can’t be terribly far in the future, since 95 percent of what we see resembles the present day. Had it been set in, say, 2100, odds are that Samantha’s consciousness would have been implanted in an extremely realistic-looking robot, or even in an actual female body. Instead, she’s stuck with this clumsy workaround, which results in extreme cognitive dissonance for poor Theodore. Maybe it would have been different had Isabella greeted him as Samantha the moment she arrived, without the brief pause that underlines the mind/body split that’s taking place. As it is, he can’t “get out of his head,” as both he and Samantha separately observe, though neither of them comments on the irony. (Samantha doesn’t even have a head to get out of, which is why they’re doing this.) Numerous sci-fi movies feature androids, which can be entirely robotic or part-human, part-robot, but Her is the only one I can think of in which the early stages of A.I. require an intermediary between man and machine, with three inadvertently becoming a crowd. It’s a creepily plausible scenario.
Still, what makes this scene heartrending, at least for me, is the sudden emergence of Isabella’s actual self after Theodore pulls out (so to speak). Her job isn’t just to have sex with him—she’s also an actor, physically interpreting everything Samantha says, and she does a pretty good job of finding the right gestures and facial expressions at various moments. (I’m also partial to her goofy attempt at a sexy dance. You can almost see her mentally flinch when Samantha suggests it.) All the same, the natural assumption is that she’s essentially a peculiar sort of prostitute or escort, so it’s jarring and disarming to discover that Samantha has told Isabella all about her relationship with Theodore, and that Isabella wanted to be a part of it. Had Theodore known this in advance—had he understood that he was engaging in a kind of threesome—he might have had an easier time adjusting. Instead, all he can think about at every moment is that the woman he’s touching isn’t the woman he loves, but is pretending to be the woman he loves. Isabella’s understanding of Theodore and Samantha’s bond, and her desire to experience it by proxy, may even have accidentally created an ”uncanny valley” effect, allowing her to mimic Samantha just closely enough to creep Theodore out. An ordinary prostitute might have been a better choice.
What’s especially strange about this whole abortive encounter is that the final straw, according to Theodore, is seeing Isabella’s lip quiver. Again, it’s not as if that sets her apart from Samantha in any concrete way, since Samantha doesn’t have lips. No physical attribute should hit him hard as not-Samantha. It must be that a quivering lip seems especially human. He’s rejecting her, in other words, because she seems insufficiently artificial. Jonze doesn’t make a big deal of this, but it’s Her’s most quietly dystopian fillip. We’re not far off, the movie asserts, from the point at which humanity will start to seem undesirable in comparison to the lack of messiness that a sentient abstraction can offer. Hence, perhaps, the choice not to provide Samantha with a human avatar. In the future, a warm color may well suffice.