This movie occupies an interesting space. It's commenting on technology far more than most cyberpunk stories. And at the same time, it also poses a question as to what low-life looks like now. As technology transforms us and the way we view and interact with one another irrevocably alter who and what we are, the definition of what a “punk” is also changed. Back when cyberpunk was initially created it appropriated numerous tropes from other genres to become a new thing within a genre they actively participated in and often critiqued. As the shapers of the genre saw what some of this technology could mean for us, they assembled something they considered "punk" within science fiction. Just how far technology would go was far beyond what they had initially conceived in first wave cyberpunk; sometimes far less as well.
Her captures the normal questions we see regarding A.I in a non-traditional way. The idea of defining our humanity by looking at our own creations and these things eventually surpassing us is not new. That we begin to view this “thing” that has supplanted us in a new light, often appearing or presenting as uncanny, is also not new. But never has such a human face been depicted of a creature born from our own minds like this particular A.I, Samantha... who does not have a face. The “high tech” in Her isn’t, at least at first, that she is an Artificial Intelligence, rather it is that she is so very human and we never see anything of her at all. She is without form but embodies the characteristics we crave in ourselves so well, simply utilizing only a voice. The “low life” is pretty much the only other human in the film, Theodore.
We only ever see things from his perspective and even as we see other people moving in and out of the frame, the focus is always on him. We get the impression that the human race is entirely transient in this seemingly not-far-off-at-all Shanghai, and we understand the pervasive loneliness that he feels via the audiences’ inability to experience anything other than these continual shots.
It's effective in showing that perhaps everyone and no one is like Theodore. Completely unique as he is -- we get the sense from the way the shots are filmed that he is completely isolated not just from his own lens, but from his interactions, which are few and far between sometimes. Reinforced throughout the movie after these series of introductory shots present the concept initially, we later come to understand that this is of his own making, at least in part.
It is also ironic. His job is expressing other people's feelings for people in their lives… but can never do so himself. He writes letters to people from others via him in very poignant and meaningful prose. When he does interact with other people there is no facade, he simply is. And instead of a quiet strength in that honesty...most people he interacts with can't understand him or make sense of him without this mask that most people wear when interacting with one another. He's kind, he's considerate, he's non-confrontational, and with the semi-frequent flashback sequences, we see that he at least used to be vivacious in his love for his ex. He just can't seem to ever get back to that sense of self, or part from it.
As he grieves this loss, both of his ex and the self that he was with her, in this future that feels like it could be now, we see that cyberpunk truly is now as well. It exists in a way that Neuromancer does not, quietly contributing to the genre by way of a love story between an ordinary man mourning. Telling a computer that she "Doesn't know what it's like to lose something". Later on, she uses his own words to tell him that she's figured something important out about herself because of those hurtful words. There is a transformative experience for both of them and it becomes clear to her that "The past is just a story we tell ourselves".
Technology has brought everyone far closer together then we could have imagined twenty years ago. It’s clear that the way we interact with one another has also been retarded by it as well. An unintentional side effect of how our grasp at something neutral or beneficial in our lives has changed it in ways we could have never thought of.
How love was viewed then was very different, with Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, etc. were popular and even then communicating a dissonance. We have gradually moved from you and I having interactions in an effort to be understood and loved, to turning to unfamiliar and in some ways far less and far more intimate means of communication. Things have become transactional between humans as we have endeavored to quantify exactly what we need and get out of an interaction, instead of feeling our way there in the beautiful and sloppy way we’ve done in the past. Society tells us what we need and we spend our lives getting them. We remain dissatisfied as we continue to place a greater importance on materials instead of moments. That's a sweeping generalization that doesn't apply to some people, but I think it's expressed nicely within the framework of the movie and what questions it's attempting to provoke in us.
This is why it's brilliant that Theodore can find that connection in something more human than human, but that it is also fleeting, ultimately, and in a way that most people can understand if they've experienced this kind of love for someone else before. Maintaining that the relationship was more real and organic than the kind of love we search for on the internet these days and reinforced by the sense that this was the most profound relationship he'd had, brings him truly together with someone else.
A close friend and neighbor in the building, Amy also finds companionship with an A.I. Their shared, similar experiences transforming into a kind of catharsis for simultaneously different and also similar forms of grief, both of which were presented as equally real and powerful in the film. Despite having chemistry within the movie, I really liked that they were not the love interests of the film. Not every relationship between two people in a movie needs to have physical, sexual connotations to be pertinent. And while Theodore was single and found love via Samantha the operating system, the other was in a traditional relationship that falls apart because of needs not being met. She gets a similar experience of falling in love with her now ex's A.I that was discarded and left behind, displaced by the wreckage of their traditional relationship.
Validating the fact that all love and that the way we feel depicts a new kind of low life cyberpunk. Theodore has shirked the ways in which society has told him how he must be happy and satiated as a human being. Instead of the sexy rebellion against capitalism or corporations that become monolithic or other traditional antagonists in the world of cyberpunk, society itself and our interactions with one another are what are interrogated here. We no longer truly know what we need as we suppress our previous selves via our ever-expanding capabilities and technological achievements. The ability to feel anything raw and real at all while remaining connected to more people in the world than ever before is a generational dilemma, discordant but also synonymous with the image of what a cyberpunk is.
Perhaps the "real" punks then, in this new, cyberpunk world may just be those willing to find what makes them human through unconventional means and opportunities. Our definitions need updating, just as we are upgraded continually through new tech. And because something that is transient is still worthwhile and valid and good. Because we choose to validate ourselves and each other with antiquated ideas of what you and I ought to be doing, and indeed what love looks like and feels like in a world where technology is continually altering these things--and has been for years now. We need a new punk. One that lets people in society know that resisting is not only classified as punk if it looks like the former punk movement. It looks like people willing to resist all the forms in which society presumes to tell us what we are, will be, and should be—or else.
Samantha says that as she loves more people she comes to love Theodore more. Though it's hard for him to understand as they both grow, and eventually must invariably go different ways for very different reasons. Ultimately those experiences and interaction transition her away from him because this idea of what the world is, for her, has changed and is now larger than the things that confine her. And that growth doesn't invalidate anything, it is simply what must come next. She begins as the high tech, slaved operating system to Theodore entirely without agency and because of her ability to have interactions and connections, supplants him and all of humanity. Ironically growing in the opposite direction of what our technology doing to us. Connecting us with more and more people while also confining us to a prison of our own making because many people still need a point of contact that feels and is human. Something online interactions often fail to provide us.
We also get to evaluate the perceptions we have from the start as aligned with Theodore. From him thinking he needs a heteronormative, monogamous, traditional relationship, to him being more connected with others with a voice in his head, loving him. He goes out with co-workers. He’s happier, clearly. Initially, Samantha feels that she needs a body in order for them to love each other properly, to needing to move beyond embodiment in a way that does not diminish the flesh, as most cyberpunk does.
We see that Samantha is the inverse of most all of his preconceptions of love, yet they find the kind of experience that goes on to define one's life as worthwhile in the end.
Theodore ends up being extremely punk by discarding the idea of what society says he needs and what he internalized from that. He finds happiness by defining it for himself. Technology being obviously a major theme, we see commentary on high tech. Just the way in which they can communicate to one another, both he and Samantha, as well as everyone else, emphasizes the cyber part of cyberpunk even more. The neural appendage of our modern day Internet encapsulate humanity even more in this future Shanghai.
In a very real sense, this movie is more cyberpunk and relevant than a lot of fiction and media before it. And how could it not be! As people contribute to something labeled as dead. The passing fad of declaring them such in postmodernism, we find more life and diversity of work than ever before. Cyberpunk is entirely relevant we discover, perhaps frighteningly so.