Brett McCracken has a fascinating review of the new Spike Jonze movie Her. He says it is ultimately about the incarnation, embodiment and our complex relationship with technology. If you have not seen the trailer here is a summary.
Set in Los Angeles of the near future (perhaps 50 years from now), Her follows lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, typically pitch perfect) as he purchases the world’s first artificially intelligent smart phone. It’s called OS1, and it’s billed as “not just an operating system; a consciousness.” Created to learn and evolve, Theodore’s “OS,” named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), quickly calculates the precise personality, affectation, and sense of humor that will best meet Theodore’s needs. She “reads” entire books in less than a second, composes piano sonatas on the fly, and devours information, ideas, literature, and art with the voracious energy of a curious child. Yet Spike Jonze’s creepy/sweet/profound film about a romance between a man and his (extremely) smart phone is Christmasy in spite of itself, for one main reason: it’s a film about incarnation.
McCracken goes onto write:
Which brings us back to Her as a film about incarnation (if not the Incarnation). In a sense, Samantha is a “god” who takes up tiny form: a pocket sized phone with a red camera “eye” (nodding to Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey). She assumes some qualities of humanity. Some, but not all: limitation, for example, and flesh—breakable, huggable, crucifiable flesh.
There’s something important here for Christians to note: whereas Samantha is pure knowledge, pure data, pure word, Christ is the Word made flesh (John 1:14). God could have chosen to reveal himself to us solely through cerebral means, offering concepts and knowledge to help us along (perhaps through an OS?). But instead he took on flesh to dwell with us relationally and incarnationally, breathing and eating and dying like we do. Immanuel. God-with-us. Does that make a difference?
It makes all the difference.
Samantha is with Theodore in a relational sense, to be sure. In whatever sense she is “real,” she is really relational (Johansson’s performance is remarkable). And yet her inability to be real in the flesh is finally too significant a barrier. We are incarnational beings, physical bodies within a physical world. By the end of Her, Theodore knows it and Jonze hammers it home: We were made for bodily, not digital, presence.
Her cautions against the Gnostic trajectory of humanity’s digitization, but the film isn’t a clarion critique or Jeremiad against technology. Her recognizes, as does this recent Apple Christmas commercial, that our relationship to technology is complex. The Her vision of artificial intelligence is less ominous than Kubrick’s “Hal” and less tragic than Spielberg’s A.I., but perhaps more instructive. Though Her hints at the ominous singularity (as in The Terminator‘s SkyNet), it is less about why we should fear thinking machines as it is what we can learn from observing them think.
Samantha’s posture toward the world, awestruck and amazed by all that there is to take in and learn—is ultimately the greatest gift she gives Theodore. In a world where thinking and exploring are increasingly dispensable (computers do it for you!) and everyone seems satisfied to play video games and move, zombielike, from one “Asian fusion” restaurant to the next, the wide-eyed OS re-enchants Theodore to the tangible beauty around him.