In the Age of AI, ‘Her’ Is a Fairy Tale

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When Spike Jonze’s Her came out in 2013, the film about a lonely man falling for an artificially intelligent operating system won widespread praise. Watching today, the qualities critics celebrated at the time are still there—it’s a gentle, enjoyably melancholy story, twee but not damnably so—but something else stands out. Though set in the near-future, Her captures Obama-era techno-optimism better than any other movie. It’s a time capsule, preserving dreams about the future that appear more naive the further we get from the 2010s.

Her takes place in a highly-stylized version of Los Angeles from a future near enough that its protagonist is a former LA Weekly journalist but distant enough that the skyline rivals Shanghai. In the film’s universe, the creation of the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system—a consumer software capable of learning and thinking like a human—is a recent, exciting development. Shortly after Her begins, the painfully lonesome and powerfully mustachioed writer Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) buys one of these new operating systems. Voiced by Scarlett Johannson, the OS names itself “Samantha,” and quickly becomes the most important companion in Theodore’s life. He soon starts calling her his girlfriend.

Although the phrase “artificial general intelligence” isn’t used in the movie, Samantha’s description of her capabilities sounds like AGI. “I have intuition,” she explains. “What makes me me is my ability to grow through my experiences.”

Watching Her today, as AI advances dominate conversations in tech, it’s interesting to see the warm-and-fuzzy approach to the rise of AGI companions. There’s no hint of a heel turn from Samantha. Near the end of the film, Theodore is distraught when she reveals that he’s not her only boyfriend—she has over 600 other romantic partners—but her polyamory is portrayed as evidence that she and Theodore are not compatible rather than something sinister on her part. She’s portrayed as inherently good, a sensitive and kind being with no ill will toward the humans who created her.

While Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) dismisses his relationship with an OS as a sign of emotional immaturity, most of the people in Theodore’s life accept it fairly easily. He goes on a double-date with his coworker and his coworker’s human girlfriend without any fuss or embarrassment, and he hears stories about other people dating operating systems as well. The dynamic is quickly normalized, which seems even more plausible now, as people across the world are starting to “socialize” with character AIs with increasing frequency. The AI girlfriend experience isn’t sci-fi anymore. It’s just something lonely people do.

The sweetness of the human-robot relationship portrayed by Her comes across as quaint right now. But really, the most remarkable, startling aspect of rewatching Her a decade after its release has nothing to do with the AI romance. The thing that makes it really look like a fairy tale when viewed in 2023 isn’t that Samantha is benign. It’s that Samantha exists in a world where a non-famous working writer has a luxurious lifestyle. The quality of life in this future world is the most preposterous thing about it.

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