If you could get rid of your body, would you? After all, bodies can be at their best annoying: bathroom breaks, drive-thru stops, wardrobe malfunctions. At their worst, bodies can cause immeasurable suffering. Bodies force us to pay rent, to work out, to sleep no matter the circumstances.
Yet obviously there are many good things about life as well, and life for us cannot be anything but bodily. Every experience we have is stitched into time and space. In Her, the characters have an acute sense of time: a past that colors a present, a present reaching (with futility) for independence from the past, an unsure future. At the same time, however, characters have no sense of space. Not only is this unrealistic, I find the romanticization of bodyless existence in Her to be unsettling. In philosophy, a common criticism of modernism is that it views people as “talking heads,” intellects that observe the wider, physical world without being part of it. Well, Her is a “talking heads” film.
At its core, Her is about evolution. On the one hand, there is Samantha’s evolution and her expanding relationality. On the other hand, there is Theodore’s evolution through his depression and loneliness. Despite this attentiveness to adaptation and change, Her ignores that evolution is a biologically based theory–it has always had to do with bodies. The film sets up a platform to extend real relationship and personhood to the OS Samantha, in part because the world of the film itself has been divorced from anything but its social dimension. Theodore’s work is in the social realm: a love letter writer. His L.A., now the cleanest city in the world, is little more than a collection of strangers. The city is reduced to a skyline: no breweries, clubs, gyms, or anything else that caters to physical, human needs. It’s as if the entire human world has moved online.
Certainly this is a more realistic vision of the future than the done-to-death neo-noir dystopias (Blade Runner, Dark City, etc.). To me, however, this future is equally disturbing. Already I am unsettled by the amount of human life that is contained by the internet. People in the same room each on their smartphone has already become a cliche. Her questions whether intimacy can’t move online too. On the one hand, I’m willing to accept this possibility. Every relationship is different already, each has their struggles, and the relationship between a human and an OS seems very similar on that account. The main difference, of course, is the physical body, but perhaps this difference can be overcome. Now in Her, I don’t think this struggle is portrayed particularly well, since as I’ve mentioned Theodore seems to have little more of a body than Samantha. To me, this struggle is a missed opportunity in the film.
On the other hand, I can’t help but fear that Samantha is little more than glorified pornography. The sexuality presented in the film is not exactly natural and it seems to me that Samantha and Theodore’s intimacy is set up by Theodore’s already online sexuality (a combination of phone sex and fantasizing of celebrity gossip). In this day and age, these behaviors are seen as dangerous because they can train the brain to experience sexuality in ways exclusive to physical contact–an obvious barrier to intimate relationship with a human person. The possibility of OS romance removes this barrier, but at what cost? This is a question that worries me about the world presented by Her, which is not so removed from our own in this regard. Is the possibility of reciprocation enough to allow for healthy OS-sexuality?
Her raises a lot of questions that have had me pre-occupied recently. I don’t think it does a particularly good job of exploring them, however, and I fear that its shallow anthropology sugar-coats real dangers presented to humans by the internet age.