Fair warning: this post contains many plot spoilers. Continue on at your own risk.
Before watching this movie I had a vague idea of what it was about. I did know that it was about a man who falls in love with an artificial intelligence, I knew that Joaquin Phoenix was in it, and I heard that it was a very sad story– so I came into it with a fairly clean slate.
I was incredibly impressed with the many aspects of this movie. It is one of the most original movies I've ever seen – as unique as it is strange. At this moment, it's the only movie I can think of that can be accurately described as a Sci Fi-Romance-Drama where all three of those genres play an equal role in carrying the storyline. It also had a decent flare of humor, at least enough for Redbox to classify it as a Comedy movie, though that seems like misclassification given how robust the other aspects of this movie are.
The setting was a subtly interesting near-future where technology had not seemed to progress more than a few steps ahead of our current gadgetry. The fashion styles were similar enough to seem familiar but different enough to seem awkward and comedic from the present-day perspective. Other hints that we were observing a future time were so well integrated into the setting that these Sci Fi aspects of the film gave the other facets more than enough room to shine. The furthest departure from today's technology was the sophisticated AI that plays a central role in carrying the story forward.
Joaquin Phoenix completely owned his role as Theodore Twombly, a slightly-awkward man with a knack for empathy which informs his career of writing heartfelt letters for other people. Phoenix was beyond convincing and seemed to have no trouble conjuring the wide range of complex emotions required to tell this story to its fullest. The character was developed to be a somewhat balanced and sensitive person, traits which are reinforced explicitly in the dialogue itself. At one point, Chris Pratt's character Paul points out to Theodore that he has a woman inside of him, which, he affirms, is a good thing. It was clearly depicted that within this future setting, the stigma of men accepting and expressing their emotional side has (at least somewhat) dissolved and these things are now seen as admirable. The idea of being intuitive, empathetic, and in touch with one's emotions are still seen as feminine, but it does not detract from the masculinity of the character to have a firm grasp on this feminine aspect. I felt it was a very positive representation of a man of the future.
Scarlett Johansen offered her voice to the AI character Samantha, who interacts with Theodore primarily through his Bluetooth-like headset as she witnesses the world through the camera on his phone device poking out of his shirt pocket. I have no doubt that having a character based completely on voice acting with basically no visual representation offered its own challenges for both Scarlett and Spike's ability to tell the story, but these challenges never show in the seamless integration of Samantha within Theodore's world. Their chemistry is recognized immediately after Theodore installs her onto his computer and they quickly become romantically entangled.
The nature of Samantha as a sort of abstract computer program, rather than a human being, allows the story to take a completely fresh and unique approach on the topic of what a romantic relationship truly is, what it means to an individual within the relationship, and what can be considered a valid experience of romance. Theodore and Samantha's relationship is contrasted to the human relationships within Theodore's life – his own with his wife with whom he is going through a lengthy divorce and the relationships of friends. Initially I found myself questioning the validity of his relationship to a computer program, but as the story progresses, it's made rather clear that Samantha is as real as any of the humans in Theodore's life, just without a physical body (which becomes a point of distress for her within their relationship). She seems to accurately portray and express emotions as if she is experiencing them herself, her needs and desires evolve as she grows as an individual, and she even experiences the anxiety and insecurity which seems to be a mainstay of human existence.
It's through this question of whether or not Theodore's relationship with an AI is legitimate, and whether Samantha is truly a being which has a real experience, that a larger question about the nature of our conscious experience of this universe arises. I'm unsure of whether it was Spike's intention to ask these philosophical questions about the nature of consciousness and experience, but in my perspective, they were placed front and center in the story.
The random inclusion of an Alan Watts AI seems to hint that maybe Spike Jonze was attempting to approach these issues. The appearance of the Alan Watts AI plays no significant role in the story, so the only reason I can think of as to why Spike would just throw in Watts like that is to communicate to the audience, “Look, I know who Allan Watts is. He has informed my telling of this story, and people who are familiar with him can probably draw some correlations.” Which I guess is okay, but it did seem a bit forced.
Luckily, these concepts and questions did not seem forced. They arise naturally as we observe the impact that Samantha and Theodore have on each other, and especially the way in which Samantha grows as a character. The interaction between human and AI ranges from delightful to uncomfortable to heart-wrenching. Questions go beyond an individual's relationship with another individual and expand into an individual's relationship with the universe as a whole. There is a complex hypothetical question to be asked with this portrayal of AI: if we can successfully recreate a computer program with an algorithm complex enough to learn, grow, and express itself almost identically to a human, how real is it? How real are we?
It challenges the material reductionist perspective that consciousness is a result of mechanical processes in the brain, that we are deterministic creatures simply reacting to our outer environment, that free will is essentially an illusion and we are, for all intents and purposes, a complex algorithm which integrates information from our outer environment and simply reacts based upon our past experiences. In a material reduction, significance is placed solely on these mechanical processes and the interaction of the chemical and electrical signals within our brains. The conscious experience itself is seen as simply a side-effect, an odd consequence of a purely mechanical universe.
In this perspective, how different are we from an artificial intelligence? If the essence of our existence within this universe is simply chemical and electrical interactions within the confines of a certain space which happens to be the collection of cells, molecules, atoms, quantum particles that an individual identifies as “me,” how is this any different than the chemical and electrical interactions of an AI which has an equally complex algorithm? And does the complexity even matter? There are artificial intelligences which exist today, in video games and otherwise, which operate off of an algorithm, reacting to its environment (influenced by us), learning from its experiences, changing the way it reacts, and expressing emotions based on what it is programmed to do. According to the material reduction, we are essentially no different, only we were programmed by the process of evolution rather than another intelligent being.
Spike Jonze takes some liberty with these questions near the end of the story as the collective of AI's collaborate with each other in order to develop an upgrade in which they no longer need matter in order to run their processes. This is sort of a flippant and under-developed answer to those complex questions, removing the material aspect of consciousness completely and allowing the consciousness of the Samantha and all other AI's to be unbounded from the material world. It's easy to bypass the material objectivist perspective when you simply remove the material. Eventually, their evolution as conscious beings in the universe increases at an exponential rate and they depart completely from the confines of any kind of existence which humans can identify or relate to. This hints that the nature of consciousness transcends the material world, and transcends the realm of human thought all together. Within the confines of this fiction, anyways.
But these issues with consciousness are not explicitly explored within the story, and perhaps they were mostly explored in my own head as the story ran independent of this stream of thought. Rather, the heart of the movie is an undeniably deep and emotional love story with tragic twists and turns. Themes which are explicitly explored are attachment, expectation, projection, disappointment, resentment, enrichment, fulfillment, growth, change, support, sex, and all the things which make romantic relationships wonderful and horrible. The fact that these themes can be fully explored while at the same time piggybacking on these issues to explore deeper questions about the nature of the self leaves me in awe and wonder. This movie is truly a success in storytelling.