In a world where smartphones are quickly taking over dinnertime conversations and people are more focused on checking e-mails, voicemails and texts rather than conversing with the person across from us, Spike Jonze’s Her is a film that I’m sure can resonate with anybody. Taking place in a time that seems too unnervingly close to us, it explores the relationship between a love letter-writing man and an operating system “woman” that delivers more real human emotion and genuine behavior than we may experience in our own real-life relationships.
The idea of a man falling in love with his operating system seems uncanny, but Her allows us to believe it and be open to it.
We first are introduced to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who is good at his job at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com and is still nursing the pain through a failed marriage with Catherine (Rooney Mara), having occasional phone sex with strangers in a Bluetooth-savvy earpiece-ridden world of a chatroom. The introduction of the OS1, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system that becomes one’s personal assistant/best friend/everything-you-could-have-ever-wanted, becomes a godsend to Theo. It is given a female voice and, soon enough, we, just as Theo, become thoroughly charmed by the bodiless presence and engaging, down-to-earth tones of “Samantha”, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
Just as expected, Samantha seems to make Theo’s life easier. She’s the best personal assistant who is up to Theo’s disposal, clearing out old e-mails and keeping only the interesting ones. She alerts him on appointments and meetings and calls his attention to urgent messages. She is also the best confidant who offers occasional reassurance and comfort to Theo whenever he gets lost into his own head. She has a sense of humor, a way with irony, and an almost all-too-real laugh that laughs at all of his jokes while doing some of his own dirty work. So, of course she becomes the guy’s best friend, companion, and then some.
Yes, they have sex. And yes, it may be queasy to watch (just as hearing him have phone sex with a random woman on the other end of his earpiece, voiced by Kristen Wiig). And while all of this may seem unnatural to us, it becomes haunting to realize that we may be headed towards a life like this ourselves. A society warped by technology where communicating with machines becomes more comfortable than communicating with people, it is to no surprise as to why Theo’s blind date with the charming, openly-inviting and neurotic, cat-eyed beauty Olivia Wilde turns into a flop.
There are many scenes in which we are shown close-ups of Theo’s face, only to later pan out and see him overlooking the vast, wide cityscape, perhaps suggesting his utter isolation and hermitage that leads him to escape into his own head and his own OS.
It is because Theo prefers the company of Samantha, the sunny operating system who is deeply involved and interested in his life (because she is programmed to do so) that makes Theo so open and pleased by her. He takes her with him to see and experience the world through his eyes as she begins to learn and grow a mind of her own, questioning things such as not being sure if what she thinks or feels is real or programmed, and wonders what it is like to have a real human body. Programmed to be quick to learn and adapt to the intuitive-nature of Theo, Samantha becomes a curious self-seeking entity herself who embarks on her own journey of self-discovery.
It is at this point that perhaps forces Theo to realize that he is as involved in her life as she is in his–and that makes their relationship feel all the more real.
“One of Spike’s big goals with the film was to make sure you really felt this relationship,” editor Eric Zumbrunnen reveals. He and Spike wanted to limit the attention to Samantha’s inhuman nature.
And, just as we were beginning to grow skeptical of how accepting Theo’s relationship with an OS is in the real world, we have an encounter with one of Theo’s only friends in real-life, Amy (Amy Adams), who has grown a liking to her own OS in which she has made a best new girl friend out of. Touchingly, she says, “We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.”
No one seems to bat an eye as Theo eventually goes public with his relationship with his OS; but, it isn’t until Theo meets up with his ex-wife Catherine who, in the most limited screen-time but most powerful moment, shatters reality into his face. She reveals that Theo had wanted her to be everything she wasn’t, finding that Theo’s love for Samantha arises because he can’t handle real women and real emotions, saying, “You’re dating a computer,” in pure disbelief.
Her could have easily been an anti-technology, narcissistic, comedic sci-fi farce, but its subtle and gentle rumination on the uneasiness of love and companionship and how we define and maintain our own relationships is a message that resonates and proves long-lasting. It is colored with moments of pure human emotion, as the emotions Theo experiences himself may seem more real, powerful, and deeper than the ones we may feel in our own lives. And, as Theo and Samantha’s relationship reveals more layers, we cannot help but still remain skeptical, even as they begin to worry where the other has gone, why they have grown distant, and even resorting to–awkwardly–hiring a sex surrogate to replace the lack of a real human body.
Just as Theo writes beautiful love letters for couples who cannot seem to communicate their own personal messages themselves, Her is a telling movie that reveals our own growing dependence on superficial means of communication and attention. It’s a modest sort of masterpiece that rewards itself in what it has to say and offer than what it actually shows to us, as it’s shot in very delicate, fluid morning-after colors featuring beautiful pop ballad scores by Arcade Fire and other similar artists.
Also, as Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is absolutely stellar and seemingly all-genuine as the mopey hermit who is stuck conversing with his hilarious alien-buddy video-game friend, Scarlett Johansson delivers an absolutely uncanny yet breathtakingly striking performance, revealing much depth, character, emotion and control just in the voice she is able to carry. (I admit that as I have seen a couple of her works over the years, I have seem to have fallen in love with her now.)
What’s strange is that this movie is entirely felt, which makes it entirely beautiful. Spike Jonze cleverly succeeds in focusing on the feeling and intellectual-relationship between Theo and Samantha, going much deeper in feeling and thought than a lot of on-screen couples are able to do today. That, in my opinion, probably makes it the best movie of 2013 that I have seen–or have seen in general, in a long long time.
What makes this film particularly beautiful is that, even in the most unconventional of relationships and seemingly ridiculous of circumstances, we can’t help but feel sympathetic to the protagonist. As someone seeking love, companionship, or even just a friend, his feelings are not guilty–albeit the programmed-artificiality of real-world connection is at fault, though–what’s more rewarding is what Theo is able to learn through this. Not only did it teach him more about himself, but it also helped him become more open to love and the real relationships surrounding him–something that perhaps we all wish we could learn ourselves.