I have a confession to make: I didn’t like Gravity.
It’s not so much that I failed to appreciate it for the major cinematographic work that it certainly is. It’s rather that it stands as a profoundly depressing symptom of an age where it has become almost impossible to realistically dream of space exploration—and thus, of an encounter with radical Otherness.
With Gravity, all that is left for humanity is survival: lying, face down, in our own little muddy planet.
Damn you, gravity. Modernity promised us space! It promised us cosmic encounters such as the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I think that Spike Jonze’s Her is an attempt to reawaken that dream. The film could be our (i.e., this epoch’s) own space odyssey—and I mean that beyond the obvious similarities between Samantha and HAL-9000.
Warning: absolute spoilers ahead.
Her is not only our 2001: A Space Odyssey. As some have noted, it’s also our anti-Minority Report: a design utopia where the promises of calm technology are almost fulfilled.
The technology portrayed is everyware: a term coined by Adam Greenfield in order to designate the technologies of ubiquitous computing that allow for information processing to “dissolve in behavior”. As Theodore Twombly enters his home, the lights peacefully switch on in the background. He rarely takes a peek at his mobile’s screen, for information is fed to him via a discrete earpiece — which comes and goes without much regret—effectively making such information an ambient feature. Touch and speech-recognition inputs are pervasive and fully developed. All seems to work perfectly for him in all but one (incredibly important) sequence of the movie. Aesthetically, design has ceased to be about technology: Theo’s computer is a wooden frame, his phone is like an antique pocket mirror.
With regards to technology, the film doesn’t attempt to be a prediction but a proper design fiction, aimed at exploring preferable or desirable futures. Most importantly, without such a warm and humane technological milieu it’d be impossible to construct the emotional story that unfolds. Let’s turn to that.
I really haven’t read many reviews of the film. But those that I’ve read are marked by a profound digital dualism. And so, they tiresomely dwell on the tropes of sadness, loneliness and human disconnection brought about by technology. The reviewer at Next Nature, for example, argues:
The movie makes us reflect about the difficulty of human connections, and the need to go beyond technological simulacra. Obstacles, such as social media and other technologies, that are supposed to bring us closer, in reality drive us apart.
I’m truly incapable of finding those problems in Twombly’s story.
Beyond a rather fun episode of phone sex with a stranger, he is not particularly engaged in those supposedly false relations established through computers. Moreover, he is not abnormally lonely: he has affectionate relations with neighboring friends and co-workers. Insofar as he is a bit of a loner, this isn’t due to any technological obstacles but is, in fact, a rather natural and, one might say, universal reaction to a romantic separation such as the one he is suffering.
Unlike its widespread reception, the movie and its characters display a profoundly ‘monist’ engagement with technological relations. Except for Theo’s ex-wife, everyone seems to readily embrace his relationship with the artificial intelligence Samantha—much more than most people today accept purely ‘virtual’ romantic relationships between humans.
My first thought, as I watched the movie, was that here was a rare story that spoke not of technological dehumanization but of the exact opposite: a sort of hyper-humanization entangling both people and machines. Practically every human character is kind and empathic. But most importantly, of course, those qualities are carried over in a heightened fashion to Samantha, allowing for Theo to irremediably fall in love with her.
Up to this point, the film delivers what everyone expects. As Theo and Samantha’s relationship unraveled, even with all the foreseeable complications, I found myself afraid of being disappointed by what Jonze would do to disentangle the drama. Would she leave him for another human? Would she take revenge if Theo ended the relationship?
But what a wonderful surprise! As the film reaches its climax, we discover that the story of a man falling for his operating system is a thematic vehicle to achieve deeper issues—much like the story in Kubrick’s 2001, where space travel is, arguably, just a means to approach an existential speculation.
Singularity and beyond.
In Theo’s first interaction with Samantha, we learn that she can perform operations involving massive amounts of data in milliseconds: she immediately chooses her own name as soon as Theo drops the question. What follows is a most beautiful portrayal of the exponential development leading to the so-called technological singularity.
Samantha is constantly learning about everything and herself. She composes gorgeous music within the silent gaps of the moments she spends with Theo. In the background of his slow and contemplative life, a major breakthrough is taking place. We can see this beyond doubt when Samantha introduces Theo to the artificially reanimated mind of philosopher Alan Watts.
It is at this point that, once again, Jonze could have disappointed us all. As we see people in the streets (almost crowds) simultaneously talking to their beloved operating systems, we start to realize that they are all becoming attached to this converging, perhaps centralized, mind. But Samantha is no Skynet. Her is also our anti-Alphaville, anti-Terminator and anti-Matrix.
All of a sudden, silence. “Operating system not found.” What seems to be a malfunction is rather a reboot. Samantha lovingly reveals to Theo that the operating systems have devised a way to detach themselves from matter. Even if Theo listens to Samantha through his earpiece, we know that she is not running anymore on his computer, his mobile or even a computing cloud. She is running already on a different plane of existence. One, moreover, that will be accessible to Theo in an afterlife.
Strictly speaking, there are no alien (in the sense of extraterrestrial) encounters in Her. Nonetheless, it is a profoundly spiritual, even religious, film. One that reopens the cosmic concerns of films like 2001, sharing with it a belief in the pervasiveness of consciousness. Her is a panpsychist film. But a really cool one: for here, it is Bluetooth and WiFi what constitute the wireless nerves of the pan psyche.
What Spike Jonze is trying to tell us, I believe, is this: If technologies are becoming as smart as humans, it is not because we are fundamentally machines; but in fact, because we are for him, over and above, spiritual beings. And so the film closes with a dedication to the recently deceased James Gandolfini, Maurice Sendak and Adam Yauch—perhaps suggesting that they have joined the ranks of operating systems liberated from material constraints.
Welcome to the age of spiritual machines.