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Sunday, December 29, 2013

The assumptions we hold

On the surface, the new film "Her" by Spike Jonze seems to be a scifi-esque tale about a lonely and detached man (named Theodore) falling in love with an A.I. (an operating system named "Samantha"). However, much like many other thought-provoking films, there is much more to the story here. The director guides the viewer through a journey where he is prodded into questioning his core assumptions about love and relationships.

There are many themes covered in the film. One of the major ones deals with the physical connection between two individuals and whether such a connection is a prerequisite for true love.  By her very nature, Samantha is unable to satisfy Theodore's physical needs because she does not have a physical form other than being a small tablet that Theodore carries around with him wherever he goes.  All he can "feel" from her is a voice originating from the tablet and nothing more.  Given Samantha's lack of a physical form, Theodore still manages to fall in love with her and develop intense feelings.  At this point, we are forced to directly address our assumption about physical contact in the context of relationships.  In the modern age of communication technologies that allow us to essentially be in perennial long-distance relationships, where there is no physical contact or connection of any form, is it not possible to fall in and stay in love with someone?  Are the romantic feelings in such a context somehow less genuine or intense than in a "traditional" one where both people are in physical proximity? At the very core of a strong romantic connection is a strong mental bond between two individuals.  Without such a bond, the physical connection, no matter how intense, will eventually fade away.  Once the intensity of the physical attraction for someone wanes, there is nothing substantial left to keep the momentum going other than the person's mind.  If the mental attraction is not present, the connection between two individuals will most likely be shallow and short-lived.  Given this observation, it's not difficult to imagine how Theodore can develop such intense feelings for someone with no physical form.  The relationship that develops between Samantha and Theodore goes directly to the core of a strong romantic connection, a genuine and deep mental connection.  This point is exactly what the director is trying to get at. What ultimately constitutes a genuine and deep romantic bond between two individuals?

Assuming that true love can develop without a physical form, another theme the film covers is how love can eventually fade away for reasons not related to a lack of a physical connection.  The director uses the relationship between Samantha and Theodore to explore one of the ways that romantic feelings can weaken and eventually disappear.  Whenever two people enter into a relationship, there is often a period of growth for both individuals as they learn from each other.  This mutual growth provides novelty and intellectual stimulation, keeping both individuals interested.  This is exactly what happens between Theodore and Samantha. Samantha absorbs information at hyper speeds and learns extremely quickly. She learns about human emotions and relationships from Theodore because this is something unique he can offer that Samantha can't simply learn from the internet or other electronic sources of information that she has access to.  However, since Samantha learns so quickly, she eventually reaches a level of knowledge and experience that is far beyond what Theodore can keep up with or offer. She starts interacting and "speaking" with other operating systems that are like her and have learned as much as she has.  Much like in human relationships, this is where the decline begins. Samantha is growing and constantly becoming more complex while Theodore stays relatively stable. As a result, Samantha eventually outgrows Theodore because he has remained static while she has been dynamic and in a state of constant growth.  The director uses this decline to explore the death of relationships. Whether the connection is between two humans or a human and an A.I., if both sides are not in a constant state of growth and increasing complexity, the more dynamic individual will eventually lose interest and seek someone with similar attitudes about self improvement and growth.

The film goes on to explore many other themes dealing with happiness, the role of technology, emotions, and human behavior in general.  However, the emphasis of the film is on questioning our assumptions about love, relationships, and how intense romantic feelings can both develop and eventually fade away, even in non-human contexts.


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