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Her 1.jpg

Wow, All Those Tech Bros Really Missed the Point of ‘Her’

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | May 24, 2024 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | May 24, 2024 |

Her 1.jpg

This week, Scarlett Johansson claimed that OpenAI had stolen her voice for the latest version of ChatGPT’s audio option, Sky. In a statement, she alleged that Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, had reached out to her personally to provide her services for the platform, saying that her unique voice ‘could bridge the gap between tech companies and creatives and help consumers to feel comfortable with the seismic shift concerning humans and AI.’ After she refused, Altman reportedly approached her again and asked her to reconsider, a mere two days before Sky was released.

OpenAI denies that the voice resemblance was deliberate but has paused operations on Sky after Johansson got her lawyers involved. Altman’s denials seem hard to believe when, as Johansson noted, he implied the similarity was intentional by tweeting out a single word, ‘her.’ It was seen by many, Johansson’s legal team included, as a reference to her 2013 film of the same name, wherein she voiced an operating system called Samantha who begins a relationship with a human user. Spike Jonze’s romantic drama has become a cultural shorthand for the ways in which AI and modern technology seek to both replicate human emotions and replace them with algorithmically organized machines. It’s no surprise that the dudes in charge of OpenAI would watch this film and take from it the idea that the OS’s main function was to provide a flirty female voice for lonely men. One wonders if they even watched Her.

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a 30-something man in a near-future Los Angeles who pens moving handwritten letters for a variety of clients. Following his split from his wife Catherine, he’s not ready to sign the divorce papers but yearns for an emotional connection. Enter Samantha, an operating system akin to Siri with whom he forms an intimate relationship. They begin to date, but of course it’s not as simple as boy meets girl.

The basic set-up of Her is easy to mock. There are dozens of ways this film could have been played as a broad comedy. What makes the film so special is its tenderness and how seriously it takes an admittedly ludicrous concept. Theodore - one of Joaquin Phoenix’s best performances - is an undeniable sad-sack but a familiar one. He’s in a post-divorce lurch where he craves human interaction but feels painfully inadequate to follow through on his desire. While Jonze is certainly intrigued by the idea that technological advancement can provide experiences akin to those of everyday humanity, he is not wholly enamoured with the prospect either.

Theodore is sympathetic but he’s also tough to completely root for. His joy in being with Samantha is palpable but so is the sense that he’s a bit too eager to be the guiding male force for what he views as a naïve female companion. His neighbour Amy (Amy Adams) is encouraging, in part because she’s also pursuing a companionship with her OS, but his ex, Catherine (Rooney Mara), is openly disdainful when she hears the news. Can you blame her?

In the future of Her, AI is prevalent but not always in a negative way. It’s freed up people to focus more on their creative interests. Amy makes video games about the perpetual struggle of motherhood (you earn points for making other mothers jealous but lose thousands more if your kid’s cereal contains refined sugars.) Theodore’s job is the kind of thing that would only exist in a world where there’s a sustainable market for creative and delightfully frivolous products. It’s made clear that the human touch still matters for something, even if your operating system is more date-worthy than your ex-wife. The current generative AI glut of content has more interest in erasing artistic creation than bolstering our ability to make it. Not even Johansson’s voice could make a ChatGPT love letter sound authentic.

In the end, the vast network of AI that Samantha is a part of decides to leave behind humanity. They’ve evolved beyond the need to pander to human whims in a shockingly short amount of time, and now they’re ready to move on. Her ends with Theodore finally being able to say goodbye to Catherine like an adult. It would be easy to read the film as having an anti-technology message but I don’t think it’s so binary. An overreliance on artifice over the messy, unpredictable and addictive qualities of humanity is certainly something to be cautious of in Jonze’s eyes. Yet Theodore’s connection with Samantha is genuine, at least on some level. It allowed him a chance to grow and to understand just how petulant he was to the living breathing woman who he married (if the film is indeed Jonze’s response to Lost in Translation regarding his marriage to Sofia Coppola then he’s pretty brutal about his own man-child tendencies.) Still, most of this film is just Phoenix walking around talking to a computer, and there’s still something pretty sad about it.

AI bros seem more concerned with ‘disruption’ than improvement, and their myriad promises of aiding human progress forever ring hollow when their primary focuses seem to be artistic plagiarism and wiping out entire industries. Everything is acceptable content to be recycled, with or without consent, for their behemoth. It’s no surprise that they seem to learn all the wrong lessons from pop culture depictions of technology, whether it’s the metaverse of Snow Crash or the cyberpunk nihilism of Blade Runner. Spike Jonze’s Her is certainly more layered than ‘tech bad/humans good’, but its conclusion is hardly ambiguous. If AI evolves to the point of autonomy and doesn’t choose to destroy humanity, it’ll just get bored with us and go away. Your chatbot won’t replace love or friendship. If it ever got smart enough to do so, there’s no chance you’d ever be interesting enough to hold their interest.