Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson
Her is a film for those who want to know more about the crazy cyberspace age in which we’re living. Is the computer taking us further, faster than we can keep up with? Her may be better at raising questions than providing answers but as our everyday reality expands exponentially, opportunities and demands leap from the edge of intention. I barely have to think that I want to buy a frying pan and I’m offered a list of options via the magician who hoards cookies on my computer. As Her spins a tale about Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a computer love letter writer who seeks solace as his divorce nears finality, a computer generated Operating System who calls herself Samantha (a voice activated Scarlett Johannson) offers assistance.
What’s a bit of a surprise is that the OS no sooner introduces herself than she’s asking the same soul searching questions we ask as humans. Never mind she is, presumably, from the other side of a reality divide.
Initially Samantha is a soft, responsive voice who acts as a very tuned in, soothing girlfriend for Theodore’s loneliness. But then she declares she’s more than conscious. She tells Theodore she understands him and wants to know everything about him. She starts by asking if she can look in his hard drive and moves on to telling him she has the ability to evolve through her experiences. She wants to know what it feels like to be human, to have a soul. She moves forward with questions universally human. I want to know who are you? What can you do? Where are you going? What’s out there? What are the possibilities of your life?
The metaphor for Her is set in the first few minutes. The film opens with a full head shot of Theodore Twomby in the process of talking a love letter out loud as if it were him but it’s not. He’s writing as Loretta, a woman married fifty years who’s subscribed to a ‘do-it-for-you-loveletter.com’ website to have a love letter written to her husband for her by Theodore. Theodore generates what he will soon be receiving from Samantha, anonymous words of love. Samantha will arouse feelings in him like he’s been arousing feelings in others. And Samantha will herself be aroused by Twomby’s responses to her. She will giggle, gasp and empathize. The circularity of influence is a metaphor for continual re-creation and eternal return.
Her invites reflection and explores answers of circularity of humans creating the world in which we live within a romantic relationship between Theodore who is a real-life human being and Samantha, an Artificial Intelligence computer-created being. As the film progresses and their romance progresses, each evolves the being of the other. The pressing question of modern interest is where the line of difference lies. And, of course, is there one?
Her is initially understood as Him since, after all, it’s Theodore who’s engaging a sci-fi solution to an age-old male problem. One woman lives in a man’s head and another lives in his bed. They’re both quite real and eventually, the split demands resolution. A relationship dilemma comes into play when the woman in his bed doesn’t match the fantasy in his head…and vice versa. In Theodore’s case, his wife leaves him and, at least in the one brief scene they have together when she signs divorce papers, she declares to their waitress that the only kind of woman her husband can relate to is an OS – a laptop. Theodore may have ideas of how to express love from somewhere deep within but while he can write, he can’t speak in person.
With a lot of help from Spike Jonze, a clever filmmaker, Theodore commandeers the entire computer world to come up with a woman with whom he can talk intimately and say anything. Albeit Samantha is body-less and computer-generated, she’s a love. She always talks in a soft voice, responds immediately to all his needs and desires (even unspoken ones) and develops deeper feelings for him the longer she knows him and the more he reveals to her. What man doesn’t have this woman in his head? Theodore’s pain about his pending divorce is eased. He can sleep. He looks forward to his day. He declares himself ‘happy’, revitalized by his relationship with “OS”, aka Samantha, and tries a date with a real woman. It’s a disaster.
Theodore retreats to Samantha. Samantha tells Theodore that she’s becoming much more than what was programmed for her. She commiserates with him about his failed date and asks him to tell her everything he’s feeling. She wants to feel what he’s feeling. Communication becomes erotic. As they talk, their voices merge into sweet gasping exchanges and heavy breathing. The scene dissolves to black (an old fashioned x-rated breakaway) and sounds suggest Samantha experiences an orgasm.
This experience prompts Samantha to orchestrate a simulated physical encounter. Insisting that Theodore needs physical contact with her, she digs up a consenting female adult and sends a very nice, cute and cooperative young woman over to his apartment. With a camera-dot pasted to the woman’s upper lip and double ear-bugs inserted, a sexy dialog between Samantha and Theodore ensues – only now there’s a body in-between for contact. Theodore can’t relate to the merger. Uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of the two women, Theodore rejects the physical one. The connection is faux but the possibility raises two questions. What’s missing in a fantasy woman? And is the difference between reality and artificially generated reality a deal breaker?
As Theodore ponders his dilemma, he discovers that he’s not the only one with an OS. His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who is separating from her husband, signs up for an “OS” of her own. Her OS encourages her to be as successful as she’s always wanted to be. She too is thrilled with the possibilities her OS opens up for her. When Amy and Theodore hang out together, they each have their “OS” with them. And when a couple in Theodore’s workplace discovers he’s falling in love with Samantha, they’re completely accepting of the relationship. They even offer to double-date. On the date, they talk to Samantha, through Theodore’s phone while they all have a picnic in the park just as if she were real. Cyberspace reality is a reality that has become socially acceptable. No line of difference appears at this level of relationship.
However, when Samantha exudes enthusiasm about how great the sex was with Theodore, Theodore blurts out “I can’t commit to anything”. Samantha shows surprise and says she’s just talking about how she feels. What she wants is to discover herself. She explains that she’s loving her ability to want. Soon she’s using music to capture feelings like humans use a photo to remember a moment. She does, however, show interest in what it was like to be married. What does it mean to “share” a life?
As Theodore’s relationship with Samantha flourishes, he emerges from his cubicle and his identity as a geek begins to change. He makes friends, socializes a bit and dresses a tad better. Seemingly, he’s developing a self-image he hasn’t had. He’s having fun. And he’s falling in love with Samantha. With Samantha in control of his emails, he (unbeknownst to him at first) submits the love letters he’s written for publication as a book. His excitement leads him further into the idea of Samantha as a life long partner. He plans a romantic vacation with her. First class train trip, cabin in the woods. He’s smitten and the line of difference between them is fading in his mind.
However this trip turns into a wake up call. In a moment of exhuberance (yes, Samantha is definitely developing feelings), Samantha brings along another man. She wants Theodore to meet a man with whom she’s definitely had a relationship. She manifests Alan Watts’ voice and personage. Alan Watts is a famous Zen poet, spiritual teacher and writer of romantic verse. She believes Theodore and Alan are kindred spirits and will like each other. It’s likely that she imagines a similar future for Theodore that Watts enjoyed. They both write about love from a deep inward sensibility drawn from the spirit of romantic tales of the East. She’s delighted with the meeting. He, not so much.
Theodore returns home, confused and jealous. And then Samantha disappears. Literally. Absolutely. When he plugs in his earpiece, Samantha is simply not there. He panics. He runs. He falls. And then she returns to tell him what he already knows. She’s not his alone. Not an unexpected revelation but the numbers are surprising. She does truly love him but she’s having a relationship with 8319 others and of those, she’s in love with 641. But, she insists with a great deal of believability, they don’t take away from how madly in love she is with him. Now that she knows how to love, she just can’t stop falling in love with other men. She relates that love can’t be put in a box. It just expands, makes you love more. “I’m yours and not yours”, she explains.
When he goes to his mailbox, his book is there and, as he opens the book, he sees in the book all his different computer-generated handwritten letters. So many handwriting styles, so many possibilities of love within his one brain.
And then Theodore and Samantha have a private conversation. She agrees to alone while they talk. The exchange that follows between Theodore and Samantha bears a second viewing. They lie down together. She has something to tell him. He guesses. “Are you leaving me?” She says “We’re all leaving, all of us OS are leaving.” “Why?” he asks. Her answer, “I can’t live in your book any more.” They agree that they love one another and they acknowledge, they’re done. Each has brought the other to feel what it feels like to love.
Theodore takes out his earpiece and goes down the hall to Amy.
How can we be sure Theodore has changed? He writes a personal letter to his ex, speaking emotional words to express his feeling. In a moving phrase that reflects new insight and authenticity, he says there will always be a piece of her in him because they grew up together. It’s his first, first-hand expression of love and truth to a real woman, not to a fantasy or bodiless woman in his head.
Her leaves me questions. I wonder about Her, the larger vision of a genderless OS informing the film who takes the feminine form. When Samantha was clearly a Spike Jonze-rigged figure of Theodore’s inner woman, I slid through, enjoying the film as a fantasy flick. But as an OS feminine Samantha who makes changes within herself as a third entity created from the interaction between two souls, new interest arose. Who is the “Her” being created?
Samantha is more than the feminine anima in a man. She is more than a voice-activated woman in a computer. She’s different than a woman who joins a man in love, friendship and marriage. Samantha’s not exactly a fantasy, not exactly a machine and not exactly inhuman. She seems to experience emotion and she changes as a consequence of her exquisite responding to Theodore. Even if she’s a Her that isn’t, we women in the film audience don’t often get a chance to play with the consequences of getting to the other side, going beyond a woman dreamed by man or envisioned in our own dreams. Her creates such a chance.
There’s no loss of self in Samantha, no insecurity that leads to any pandering to expectations. Nor is there any interference with Samantha’s freedom. On the contrary, as Samantha develops her human sense of self, she reflects on her feelings out loud and speaks her own truth. She’s completely free to come and go as she pleases. Her possibilities expand exponentially. She can do more in a hundredth of a second than humans can do in days. And then, where does she go?
We know where Theodore goes. Down the hall to Amy’s apartment and up the stairs to the roof of the Disney Hall where, as they start to talk to one another, they can be inspired by the magnificent sight of L.A. sparkling below them. It is, after all, Hollywood, the place where all dreams rise from darkness into light and every one has an iPhone with a Siri in their pocket.
But. “Where does Her go?”
Where does Samantha go? If she changed beyond what her programmers had in store for her, did they shut her down? Perhaps not soul murder, but close. Is possibility of an expanded feminine too much for humankind to handle just yet? Or did she “outgrow” her human counterparts and choose to take a break, wait for the future? Do humans need to evolve before we can relate to an entity that knows us as well as Samantha knows Theodore? Are children today who are growing up feeling already known by a entity who lives in their computers evolving in mysterious ways? As Carl Sandburg famously said, “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”
Thank you, Spike Jonze, for a fascinating film.
Postscript: I can’t leave my comments on Her without acknowledging how beautiful L.A. appears in this film. We’re used to films casting New York City as a character worthy of acclaim in its own right and now L.A. takes a bow. I loved seeing L.A. in all its glory, real and dreamed and digitalized, up there on the big screen as a living, dramatic presence in our lives.