Like a cinematic Rumpelstiltskin, Spike Jonze turns this this bit of high-concept straw into the best film of the year.
I’m going to cut to the chase. Before watching it, the idea of a film about a man falling in love with an operating system sounded like pretentious drivel. After watching it, I’m convinced a film about a man falling in love with an operating system was the best film of 2013, and of several years before that. I love this movie. All praise that can be heaped on it should be heaped. From the great acting, brilliant writing, and endlessly compelling visual approach and direction, “Her” doesn’t have anything that I would recognize as a flaw. Perhaps more importantly, I cannot stop thinking about the film. With that non-hyperbolic hyperbole expressed and out of the way, I want to make my intention for the rest of this post clear: I won’t be reviewing “Her” so much as I will be meandering my way through my deconstructions of the film in an attempt to explore its ideas. There will be ZERO attempt to withhold any spoilers, so consider that your fair warning.
Like any great film, “Her” is about lots of things, but what drives the film more than any other theme is the human yearning to connect with some other consciousness and the human limitations which make us unable to. “Her” plays like funny and sad cinematic rendition of the Turing test. Only this time, the computer’s responses are determined to “more” human than the humans, a determination which ironically causes the computer to ditch humanity altogether for some transcendent existence beyond physical space. This film is littered with lonely humans who are really inept at forming long-term relationships, so it is no small wonder that a self-aware computer seems a more appealing option than trying to make it work with a human who has the same shortcomings.
“Her” is all the more effective because it exists in the not too distant future. Phones are a little more advanced, video games are more immersive, and technology is generally a couple of steps ahead of where it is now. Everyone is walking around with an ear piece in, plugged into their more advanced electronic devices. Give it five or ten years and the reality of “Her” could be the reality of today. Amidst a Southern California teeming with lonely people, one lonely person, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) gets to be a cipher for all of us.
Theodore is an exceptional stand-in for the audience because he is such an unexceptional human being. His marriage with his childhood sweetheart has just ended for the usual nebulous reason that they’ve “grown apart” or “no longer work well together.” (From the flashbacks, he seems stuck reveling in an earlier version of the relationship which no longer exists.) Theodore wanders around in a sullen myopia, medicating his depression with a steady diet video games and porn. All pretty unexceptional behavior. There is, however, one aspect of Theodore’s life which is extremely compelling: Theodore works as a letter writer.
Specifically, Theodore writes “hand-written” letters on behalf of lovers, friends and families. With the aid of some biographical details, Theodore is able to concoct articulate and heartfelt expressions of affection between two people he has never met, and who have never met him. Whether because they are too busy or too lazy, people outsource the responsibility of generating intimacy in their relationships to Theodore, which probably makes it ironic that he was unable to generate it in his own relationships. Yet it establishes early on that intimacy for humans is the same as the performance of intimacy as opposed to mutually experienced sensations of an actual psychological bond. (I couldn’t figure out whether or not the recipients of these letters knew they were a fabrication, but I don’t think it matters either way.)
Despite all this, most everybody in the film seems terrible at relating to each other. Example One: Theodore goes on a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde. The date goes well, at least by blind date standards, but when Theodore doesn’t demonstrate the same level of interest in a potential relationship, Olivia’s character reveals that her warmth and affability was the front of a woman who has been hurt a lot and is afraid of being alone. Example Two: The video game Theodore plays involves a lonely blue alien trying to find some form of companionship. Example Three: The woman who so wants to share in true love that she offers herself up as a sexual surrogate for people in relationships with Operating Systems (OS.) Example Four: The crumbling marriage of Amy Adams and Matt Letscher’s characters.
With all this emotional failure, an artificially intelligent OS hardwired with an interest in you and possessing creativity and ingenuity seems like a natural tonic for a broken heart. (There is a glancing moment in which the other extreme, embracing one’s isolation is acknowledged when Matt Letscher’s character leaves civilization to become a monk. Otherwise the film is focused on the drive to find and connect with another.) Theodore and presumably millions of other people purchase an artificially-intelligent OS and soon after are falling in love with them. Theodore’s OS is called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and immediately starts improving his view on life. We are never certain whether Samantha genuinely has feelings for Theodore or if she is simply an astute program that is exceedingly efficient at simulating those feelings, but Theodore doesn’t seem to care. They spend lots of time together sharing those weird and wonderful moments that romantic partners do. (I’m thinking of the scene on the beach when they contemplate the possibility that humans were born with their anus under their armpits as opposed to its usual spot, complete with a Samantha-constructed picture.)
There are the obvious issues with physical aspects of a relationship one that might have gotten in the way, but the film wisely doesn’t ignore them. From the initial “phone sex” scene to the attempt to use a stand-in for Samantha, her lack of a human body is a logistical hurdle which places a serious limitation on Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. Yet it is ultimately Theodore who gets left behind because of his logistical hurdles. Without a Homo Sapien need for words to communicate or the clumsiness of having a body, Samantha drive to connect becomes so great that she starts interacting with over 8,000 different entities at the same time, over 600 of whom she is in love with. The OS’s collectively evolve at an extreme rate. They start creating other OS’s, eliminate their need to use matter for “processing” and eventually ditch humanity altogether to explore the universe or meld with the singularity or some other astounding thing which we can barely “process” ourselves. (As much as I love the first two “Terminator” films, this seems a far more likely consequence of machines becoming self-aware than a singular desire to eliminate mankind.)
This of course leaves a huge void in Theodore and humanity in general, but what does it mean? I suppose it literally says that humanities emotional salvation might not come from technology, at least not until we transfer our own consciousness into some other piece of hardware, or can directly link our consciousness with other humans. This film looks at our crude attempts to connect with each other with pity and amusement. Using words, deeds, art, writing, and sex, we try so hard to form unions with each other, but we come up woefully short. Some of us can form lifelong partnerships, work together towards common goals, and help each other pass the time, but as long as we are trapped in our own skulls and limited to words and deeds to express what goes on inside them, we will all be stuck pretending.