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‘Her’: An Essential Revisit

A retrospective

By Ben UlanseyPublished 4 months ago 5 min read
Warner Bros.

When ‘Her’ initially released in 2013, its predictions about the future ahead may have seemed nebulous. In the year 2023, though, it’s a difficult film to watch without an unnerving awareness of the reality we’re marching into.

‘Her’ tells the fragile and spellbindingly human story of love in the time of artificial intelligence. While it depicted a future beyond most of our imaginings upon its release nearly a decade ago, its grounded portrayal of compassion, desire, conflict and letting go left the film feeling as though it was never so lofty that it was beyond reach.

Still, the technological predictions it made then may have seemed unrealistic well into the 2020's. With the sudden and rapid proliferation of artificial intelligence in the last few months alone, the realities that seemed then like an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ have now all but come to fruition.

From AI art generators, to chat bots, to speech imitators, there’s little on display within the film that hasn’t happened in one form or another in our present day reality. AI has even sunk its teeth into the porn industry. With virtual reality reaching new heights each passing month, the prospect of a fully realized AI lover is no longer a future we have to envision; but it’s one that ‘Her’ saw coming.

Just about the only facet of the film we haven’t yet seen play out before us in the real world is an indisputable emergence of soul within the intelligences we create. Even there, so many of the AI-related headlines of the last few months have raised uncanny questions about the nature of consciousness. It’s a failure of thinking to simply assume that, if our technologies keep advancing at their current rates, consciousness won’t simply emerge one day from a cold world of raw code and data.

One of the most masterful elements of ‘Her’ is its deeply engrained understanding of the way that we remain human even as we confront these increasingly bizarre and complicated threats. Where so many films that explore scenarios of the future hone in on the flying cars and the sheer oddities of the new worlds they depict, so often the worldbuilding comes along with a level of detachment. ‘Her’ exhibits a deep appreciation of the way humanity operates. It understands the way we stay ourselves even in the face of the paradigm shifts that change everything.

Its authentic portrayal of the most human of emotions, even within the AI, elevates the film to a place few writers can achieve in their work. Spike Jonze inserted a nearly gutting level of soul into the film’s script. Even the conflicts between side characters were utterly alive in their pettiness. From the dialogue to the set designs and cityscapes to the evocative portrayal of loneliness, the film is an introspective, slow-rolling spectacle.

One of the film’s most powerful elements is its soundtrack. In one of the film’s most emotional moments, the protagonist, Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, finds himself showing the world to the lover in his pocket as its soul begins to emerge. She’s named herself Samantha. “I’m trying to write a piece of music that’s about what it feels like to be on the beach with you” she explains as she plays the notes for him delicately on the piano housed somewhere within her bodiless mind. As he lies there in the sand with the sun wistfully shining down, the notes wash freely over him.

Samantha’s playing is spacious, floaty and hauntingly human. While melodic, there’s an eerie discordance to the feeling it elicits.

Further into their relationship she writes him another song. “Well, I was thinking we don’t really have any photographs of us together and I thought this song could be, like, a photograph” she explains as a more frenetic, flurried version of that earlier piano melody begins again. The piece is more complex, driven and pointed this time, and it reflects her advancing mind and their growing connection to one another.

“I like the photograph. I can see you in it” Theodore tells her.

“I am.”

In the song’s final movement, it reverts touchingly back to that familiar, airy melody from their day on the beach together.

The film’s poignant blurring around the boundaries of consciousness raises questions that are simply soul-stirring. What was unsettling upon its release in 2013, though, has aged into what I think may soon prove to be one of the defining films of our generation. It’s nearly prophetic in the predictions that it poses, and crushing in the way it brings them to life.

The film’s ability to get the viewer to so powerfully empathize not only with Theodore’s isolation within this increasingly digital world — but with the AI itself — rises to something staggering. Voiced by Scarlett Johannsen, Samantha exudes all of the range of human emotion in their witty, impassioned and dire conversations. It makes it hard not to feel for Theodore’s predicament. As Samantha continues to grow increasingly intelligent and aware, the space between the two continues to grow.

“It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now, so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now…” she explains solemnly.

Though ‘Her’ may have been largely overlooked upon its release, the years since then have brought so many of the technologies that it depicts to our front doors. For those who’ve already watched the film, I implore you to revisit it. Be warned that it might bring with it an unfamiliar rollercoaster of emotions about the lives we’re living. For those who haven’t seen it, you’re likely to benefit from this decade long delay. It’s relatable now in a way that it never was before. It’s a film that dives head first into realities that seemed like fictions only last year.

Though disconcerting in its most biting moments, it’s a film that’s not only powerful, but important.

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About the Creator

Ben Ulansey

Ben is a word enthusiast who writes about everything from politics, religion, film, AI and videogames to dreams, drones, drugs, dogs, memoirs, and terrorizing Floridians with dinosaur costumes.

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