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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘Her’

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman | @CinemaInFocus |

3 Stars — Intriguing

The more sophisticated the program of artificial intelligence is, the more artists have to work with to explore our humanity. The exploration goes both ways when the machines struggle with what it means to be alive while the humans explore what it means to have a relationship with a machine. Although this theme is nothing new to science fiction, as seen with #5 Alive or Data in Star Trek, Spike Jonze takes it to the newest and most complex level yet explored in Her.

The artificial intelligence is an operating system that names itself Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson) because "she likes the sound of it." Just that event alone at the beginning of her service to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as his OS establishes the fact that this isn't your usual computer program.

Not only is Samantha's voice seductively engaging, but she has self-awareness at the level of knowing what pleases her rather than merely serving Theodore.

As a recluse who is ironically employed as the writer of handwritten letters for others, Theodore longs for a relationship but is incapable of connecting with anyone personally. But it is different with Samantha. At first uncomfortable with his comfort in having her in his life, he soon chooses to accept the relationship for what it is and gives her his love.

Although we would expect that Samantha is simply the projection of his own desires, the programmers have made it possible for Samantha, and other OS programs like her, to have the freedom to accept their owners' love or not. It is this additional aspect to AI that is intriguing.

The various questions explored by this new possibility of having a relationship with a computer range from the more obvious ones of asking what love is and what it is not, to the struggle for a disembodied intelligence to find physical connection, to the finite limitations of humanity that are quickly transcended by Samantha as she begins to create a relationship with other operating systems. Although spirituality is not explored overtly, it is an obvious analogy for our relationship with God and the nature of a divine love between two beings who are not the same.

We won't spoil the progression of Theodore and Samantha's relationship, but the journey includes all aspects we would expect of an intimate love relationship.

Appropriately rated R, the film is not for everyone, and the language and adult themes are not suitable for children. But for the science fiction fan, it is the next chapter in the evolution of the machine/human bond. Only time will tell whether it is only fiction or a projection into a realistic future.


» When you talk with a computer with voice recognition, how do you emotionally respond? Do you ever forget it is just a machine?

» The decision by Spike Jonze to name his leading man Theodore, which means "God's gift," is perhaps another irony of a film filled with ironic situations. But if he meant Theodore to be God's gift, to whom do you think he was intended?

» The emptiness of Theodore's life is matched by the fullness of Samantha's. Do you think artificial intelligence will ever love, and if so, what will be the moral parameters of such a love? Samantha is not exclusive in her love for Theodore and can in fact have simultaneous conversations with her many lovers. Theodore is unable and unwilling to share himself in the same way. How does this comparison affect you and your understanding of faithful love?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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