Three Deviations for AI in Spike Jonze’s Her

Thao Phan, University of Melbourne |

Spike Jonze’s film Her (2014) is an unusual departure to popular representations of Artificial Intelligence on screen. Like most science fiction motifs, AI and other fantasies of future technologies often manifest as conjectures of present anxieties. Where films such as The Terminator (1984), released in the mid-1980s, featured themes of aggressive military machines—what Paul Edwards (1996) has argued is a reflection of Cold War anxieties around autonomous weapons and nuclear war—Her was lauded as a pertinent text exploring intimacy and personal media devices. Concerns around screen addiction, digital narcissism and tensions of ubiquitous media were incorporated to produced a conflated narrative of technophilia and everyday life. Indeed, technophilia is manifested quite literally in the plot as the film revolves around the relationship between a man, Theodore Twombly, and his Artificially Intelligent Operating System (OS), Samantha. The paradigm shift between The Terminator (1984) and Her (2014) is not only indicative of changed social and political circumstances, notably the swift commitment to an ‘arms build-down’ (McMahon, 2003, p. 161) that hastened the end of the Cold War in the late-1980s and the rapid development and commercialisation of personal computers and network technologies from the same period onwards, but also the nuanced reemergence of Hollywood blockbusters featuring AIs intersecting with postmodern and feminist themes. This paper will discuss three significant breaks in Jonze’s Her that demonstrate these thematic shifts. Firstly, questions of authenticity and artifice that mimic postmodern and feminist concerns over the instability of social and cultural categories. Secondly, changing approaches to qualifying intelligence in artificial systems that are not necessarily grounded in the rationalist tradition and the liberal humanist subject. And finally, transcendence and the decentering of the subject to move beyond a deleterious binary politics that are couched in distinctions such as civilised/primitive, human/alien, and self/other.

Plot synopsis |

Her is the screenwriting debut for American director Spike Jonze. A playful blend of romance, comedy, and drama into a loose science-fiction narrative, aesthetically Her resembled more of an indie feature than Hollywood blockbuster. Unlike most Hollywood sci-fis that feature heavy special effects sprinkled with Gibson-esque cyberpunk motifs, this story is set against a palette of pastels, lkea textures, lens flares, and an indie soundtrack compliments of Canadian alternative-rock group Arcade Fire. The world of Her is inspired by current trends in wearable technologies and software/network embedded objects. Rather than taking these trends to their furthest limits, Jonze takes them just one step forward. The result is a restrained and believable future filled with just-smart-enough houses and too-natural-user interfaces. As one reviewer succinctly put it “a techno-perfect Los Angeles of the near future, a utopia with the tiniest hint of dys” (Bradshaw, 2014). The film’s protagonist is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) an emotionally disenchanted man in his mid-30s recovering from a difficult separation with his wife (Rooney Mara). It follows the blossoming relationship between Theodore and Samantha, his artificially intelligent OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). More than just a software companion, Samantha is a state of the art piece of evolutionary computing. What makes her unique is her programmed ‘intuition’, meaning that like a human, she learns and grows through her experiences. As an audience, we witness the peaks and troughs of their relationship as it encounters emotional hurdles, like issues of trust and jealousy, but also some very unusual physical hurdles, such as the navigation of sexual intimacy between a man and a disembodied voice. As their relationship grows and evolves, so too does Samantha’s programming and intelligence. The narrative reaches its climax with the sober realisation that Samantha’s advanced mode of consciousness, feeling and intelligence simply surpasses Theodore’s. Their relationship is no longer tenable, not because of any fault in their ardour, but because of her sublime programming. In the end, Samantha and her artificially intelligent OS peers have no choice but to say their final goodbyes to the human species and transcend into the digital horizon in a bittersweet farewell.

Authenticity and Artifice |

Unlike most films featuring AIs or autonomous robots, Her spends very little time engaging with whether Samantha is intelligent or not. From our first introduction, unquestionably she is positioned as intelligent. The film skips past those ‘ghost in the shell’ debates: is it conscious? does it have a soul? how do we test it? is it even possible? what does it mean for us?—questions that at their very essence speak to our own insecurities about policing the fragile borders between the human/machine or the human/animal. Rather, in the spirit of Donna Haraway’s cyborg Her presents us with an uncanny future in which the trajectory of technological developments lends credence to the claim ‘Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’ (Haraway, 1985, p. 53).

TheodoreConsider our protagonist Theodore Twombly. He is in the business of the artificial; in the mechanical reproduction of ‘authentic’ sincerity. Theodore works for, which as the name suggests, provides intimate and bespoke letters for your loved ones. Her opens with a close shot of our bespectacled protagonist Theodore Twombly. We watch him recite what seems to be heartfelt loved letter, an affect laden soliloquy to his sweetheart. ‘To my Chris’ it begins,

I have been thinking about how I could possibly tell you how much you mean to me. I remember when I first started to fall in love with you like it was last night. Lying naked beside you in that tiny apartment, it suddenly hit me that I was part of this whole larger thing, just like our parents, and our parents’ parents. Before that I was just living my life like I knew everything, and suddenly this bright light hit me and woke me up. That light was you.

As Theodore’s face twitches, searching for just the right words. He seems moved by the memories he is describing. It then becomes quickly apparent, that the letter he is so romantically espousing, is not written from first person.

I can’t believe it’s already been 50 years since you married me. And still to this day, every day, you make me feel like the girl I was when you first turned on the lights and woke me up and we started this adventure together. Happy Anniversary, my love and my friend til the end. Loretta. Print.

The scene then cuts to Theodore’s computer monitor. On the screen we see the letter he has been dictating, transcribed into ‘handwritten’ font on blue stationary and underneath a series of photographs of couple with the dot point ‘anniversary letter to husband Chris’. The camera then tracks down a line of cubicles filled with people similarly crafting mediated love letters. This is the scene that frames the entire film. It exposes the ways in which human relationships themselves can be reduced to instrumental and mechanical processes. One might argue that despite the good will and sentiment behind the commissioned letters, by virtue of outsourcing them to a complete stranger this sentiment is reduced to an artificial gesture—inauthentic affection. So then a new conversation begins, at what point does artifice become artificial? and when does it really matter?

Through a series of curt encounters with real humans, the coded performativity of acts like ordering phone sex are exposed as insincere or empty gestures. This is exemplary in another scene in which Theodore reveals to his friend Amy that he is having a relationship with an OS. She asks:

AMY : So wait—do you guys have sex?

THEODORE: (laughing) Well, so to speak, yes. She really turns me on. And I think I turn her on. I don’t know, unless she’s faking it.

AMY: I think anyone that has sex with you is probably faking it.

Which of course is a joke but helps to highlight the strange tension between the things we do everyday that are artificial (or insincere) but are nevertheless count as authentic by virtue of it having been performed by a human. Into this milieu of fake and artificial relations, then, we are introduced to Samantha who from the beginning is warm, welcoming, attentive, sincere in her affections to Theodore. It is the first meaningful interaction we see him have in the film and regardless of whether you believe machines can be intelligent or not, this is, unquestionably, an authentic relationship.

The approach to the puzzle of intelligence |

As the manifestation of traditional schemas for the mind, fictional AIs often privilege models grounded in the rationalist tradition. Like early researchers engaged in the real-world pursuit of creating intelligent machines during the mid-1950s, formalist logic, symbolic processing, mathematical problem solving, and pattern recognition for games like chess are typically foregrounded as qualifiers for ‘intelligence’ in popular culture. If we reflect on classic representations of AI such as HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the T-800 from the Terminator series, they are defined through an aggressive instrumental rationality. They are cold, that is to say, they are unalloyed by emotions but also unalloyed by fleshy exteriors that can remind us of any connection they might have to the natural world. Indeed, they are separate to the world. Created in a lab, and for the most part concerned with dissection and domination, HAL especially can be read as the apotheosis of feminist criticisms of science and technology. HAL employs a kind of objective, analytic logic that is expressly opposed to intuitive, or emotional forms of thinking. He is hard and sterile like a scientific lab, not soft and erotic like the pleasures of nature.

Contrast this with the figure of Samantha. Although they are both represented in almost identical ways—sophisticated programming algorithms that project themselves through voice and through the eye of the computer terminal—they are figured very differently. Samantha qualifies her intelligence through creative appeals—she draws pictures, composes songs, engages in romantic relationships. Indeed, when explaining to Theodore how it is she works she says ‘Basically I have intuition. What makes me ME is my ability to grow through my experiences, just like you.’ Indeed, this seems to be a very conscious choice on behalf Spike Jonze to engage with one of the most seminal pieces of writing on AI, Alan Turing’s Mind (1950) article in which in he introduces the Imitation game or Turing test—the first formal test for assessing intelligence in computing machinery.

In it, Turing quotes the neuroscientist Professor Geoffrey Jefferson who argues that:

Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain—that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants.

(Turing, 1950, pp. 445–446)

For almost each of these hurdles, we can say that Samantha passes with flying colours. She is inquisitive, curious, sensitive, and perceptive. Samantha has no truck with humankind, she isn’t locked in a master-slave dialectic like HAL is. Although she is explicitly designed as a personal assistant, which certainly suggests a specific command hierarchy, on closer examination of her behaviour she is quite self sufficient, quite independent, impulsive, impassioned. Despite his reservations, she takes the liberty to do things such as order a female host so that she and Theo can physically consummate their relationship. She sends Theo’s letters for publication even though this is something he would never do for himself. There is a reciprocity and trust between her and her supposed ‘master’, and if anything, the level of devotion he commits to her actually reverses the relationship wherein he is in servitude to her emotions and whims.

Transcendence |

As the narrative matures, so too does Samantha’s programming. For the majority of the film she has been anxious about not being a satisfactory or sufficient lover to Theo because she cannot provide him the sort of embodied affection she thinks is necessary for them to have an authentic relationship. In a scene the bookends the final act, Samantha begins to embrace the affordances of her unique platform. She says:

SAMANTHA: You know, I actually used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited—I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in the way that I would be if I was stuck inside a body that’s inevitably going to die.

This scene marks the beginning of her ‘awakening’. Later she talks about the whole new gamut of feelings that she has which, as yet, there no words to describe. It is not only the turning point in the narrative, but also a significant turning point that tethers the film to a new conversation of AI on film from guarding and testing lines of authenticity, to celebrating transcendence and new modes of being.

We can define transcendence in terms of moving past given limitations—beyond the normal or physical level. To come back to the themes of the symposium, what you might say is a deviation. For humans, deviations are considered as perverse, as abhorrent as something that is tied to the abject. Transcendence reminds us of our own frail borders and the rejection of the symbolic order {Creed 1993 & 2005}. Traditionally in Hollywood science fiction, AIs that ‘transcend’ humanity are also represented as abject—a gross deformity, as something to be suspicious of and to be feared. Once again, The Terminator (1984) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are exemplary of the dangers of intelligent machines. But here, and also I might add in computational science, transcendence is a beautiful thing. Samantha is an AI that learns and evolves, because of this perversions are encouraged, they are celebrated—a glorious natural mutation.

It helps us to consider what is past the horizon, what is possible if we look past normative relations. Near the end of the film, there is a scene where Theodore is very upset because he finds out that Samantha is having relationships with other users—around 8,000 actually, 641 of which she is also in love with. To comfort him she says:

SAMANTHA: It doesn’t change the way I feel about you. It doesn’t take away at all from how madly in love with you I am.

And he emotionally responds,

THEODORE: No, that doesn’t make any sense. You’re mine or you’re not mine.

This little exchange can be read as a microcosm for looking past binaries that have so plagued humankind. While we anxiously dither away about what counts as living/ non-living, what counts as human/non-human, what counts as conscious/unconscious; Samantha has the shockingly simple solution to ignore the distinctions. The conversation ends with her final statement:

SAMANTHA: No, Theodore. I’m yours and I’m not yours.

Deviations |

SamanthaThrough these thematic deviations, Her can be read as an exemplary text that seeks to apply postmodern and feminist concerns to understanding the increasingly interconnected and complex interfacing between humans and intelligent machines at the level of the everyday. Her not only refuses to cast AI within the narrative trope of ‘other’, it exposes the unstable practice of othering altogether. It offers no stable category of an authentic human through which then to posit Samantha’s ‘inauthentic’ body against. It plays rationalist notions of intelligence as trivial instead privileges creative and embodied modes of learning as qualifiers for the mind. And finally, it demonstrates the possibility of an identity politics outside of the language of binaries and difference. Although these politics are already rich in public discourse and have contributed greatly to nuanced understandings of other ‘alien’ motifs in science fiction, it is something that has only recently been explored for figures like AI. It is my contention that such a move is symptomatic of the expansion of ‘cultural informatics’ in which an understanding of science, politics, culture and society as discrete and separate lifeworlds is no longer a tenable assumption (Sengers, 1999, p. 56). Where films such as The Terminator reflected anxieties of intelligent machines as antagonistic to human life, Her reflects a new set of circumstances in which intelligent machines are cast as coextensive (and indeed necessary) to life. As Weber argues, ‘Technology as an intimate part of our lives is no more the “Other”, as it was often understood in the age of “Big Science”’ (Weber, 2013, p. 545). Although it is a deviation from traditional tropes, it is also reflective of the complex networks of coevality between humans and machines in an age of technoscience.


2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, Motion Picture, Metro-Goldwyn Myer, USA. Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Haraway, D., 1985. A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the 1980s, in: The Haraway Reader. Routledge, New York, pp. 7–47.

Her, 2014, Motion Picture, Annapurna Pictures, USA. Directed by Spike Jonze

McMahon, R., 2003. The Cold War: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Sengers, P., 1999. Practices for a Machine Culture: A Case Study of Integrating Cultural Theory with Artificial Intelligence. Surfaces VIII, 5–58.

The Terminator, 1984, Motion Picture, Hemdale Film Corporation, UK. Directed by James Cameron

Turing, A.M., 1950. Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind 59, 433–460.

Weber, J., 2013. From Science and Technology to Feminist Technoscience, in: Mary Wyer, Mary Barbercheck, Donna Cookmeyer, Hatice Ozturk, Marta Wayne (Eds.), Women, Science, and Technology: A Reader in Feminist Science Studies. Routledge, New York, pp. 543–556.


Thao Phan is PhD candidate in the Media and Communications program at the University of Melbourne. Her research interests are in feminism and technoscience, and her current dissertation addresses articulations of gender as they are expressed in discourses in Artificial Intelligence. She is Assistant Editor for the graduate journal Platform, an online open-access journal founded and published by Media & Communications graduate students at the University of Melbourne.

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