The tricky thing about human love is that it doesn’t make sense, it follows no logic, and it is at once the most selfish and most generous thing we can do. Furthermore, it has no universals that can link one love to another and, most tantalizing of all, it remains definable only by the participants in it, and those participants, often tragically, don’t have to agree. It’s this fact that makes Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) so intriguing but also so problematic, which is one of the things that make the movie something like love. I was enthralled by the way it looked, I was immersed in the feeling of it, but I was always held at arm’s length. I never felt fully invested in its worldview or even its story. I wanted to know so much more than what the movie gave me and therefore became slightly disillusioned with what I was getting.
The movie takes place in Los Angeles in the near future, somewhere between 20 and 50 years from now. Technology has advanced a great deal: We no longer use keyboards and everything is dictated to operating systems on super-intuitive phones and computers that store our lives. Men’s fashion has also moved a step or two, and gentlemen of the mid-21st century wear their woolen pants up high and collars on oxford shirts are optional adornments. Ties are facing extinction. I mention this because I want to praise the art direction of the movie, which is universally fine and creates a visual world that is at once, realistic, fantastic and warmly optimistic. This is the Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1982) seen in an assured light. Things are more vertical (the movie uses Shanghai footage for some of its exteriors), more colorful, and the detail is perfect, imagining a world in which the children of today’s hipsters are making all the design choices. This leads to smart phones that look like vintage cigarette cases and computers that resemble high-end luggage, buildings and restaurants that stretch the limits of creative architecture.
In this world lives Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), our modern man, festooned in tortoiseshell glasses and a mustache that has come through the other end of being ironic. He works for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.
Theodore purchases a new operating system for his phone, which speaks to him through an ear piece and “sees” out of a camera in the device itself, which Theodore puts in his shirt pocket, even putting a clothespin in the pocket to make it more shallow so the camera can peek out. The system takes the name Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). She assesses his personality by reading his emails and, to a certain degree, his mind, catching on to ticks and revealing phrases and behaviors. She is basically his personal assistant, alerting him of emails and appointments, but she assumes a personality; funny, sarcastic and a little nosy, she pushes him to be more ambitious, to reach out more, even to go on a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde, which goes well in a boozy, flirty way but then takes a nosedive when things get physical. Theodore seems distracted, either by his previous experience with quick leaps into bed or maybe because he has someone else on his mind. Samantha consoles him and he realizes it’s her he wants to be with.
The movie then is a straight-forward romance and presents the issues this particular couple would be in for. The first hurdle is the lack of a physical body. Theodore and Samantha are able to have a certain form of intimacy just through speaking, but Samantha grows to want more and convinces Theodore to try a surrogate, a woman who is so starved for connection that she is happy to have sex with people who are in love with their operating systems (in this future, this is becoming a thing) simply to be near a happy relationship. Theodore is turned off by the idea (the woman does the physical stuff while Samantha talks in Theodore’s ear), but they work around this problem only to encounter others as Samantha, now equipped with the ability to love, wants more of it and, in a certain sense, becomes better at it than Theodore.
The movie is very sweet and romantic and has a message that loneliness can be cured in whatever way works, but it has a precarious relationship with the issues it raises, roundly ignoring or never considering how it feels about the idea of love between humans and a program that replicates humanity. Theodore has sex with Samantha, as it is, phone sex, but when the program is designed to read your personality and create something compatible, isn’t this an extremely sophisticated form of masturbation? Isn’t seeing somebody whose existence is based on algorithms derived from your behavior just an easy and comforting way of nurturing a self-absorption? I don’t know the answers to these questions but what concerns me is that Her doesn’t seem to even acknowledge them. The movie seems more concerned with what it would be like for such a couple, what trials and pitfalls might they encounter, rather than dealing with the implications of what such a relationship would mean, not just for Theodore, but for a society in which love begins to be written in lines of code. In a way, the straightforward style is fascinating on its own, in another it’s frustratingly opaque.
It’s not particularly fair for faulting the movie for something it isn’t or doesn’t want to be. It wants to be a romance, telling the story of lovers and their particular hang-ups and in that, its a good one. Its main concern is communication and how it is the main tool to connecting with others, even when those others are bodiless or programmed. The story seemed so ripe for exploring the full reach of that, that it couldn’t distract me from trying to do so myself, even if the movie wouldn’t. “Sometimes I feel like I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel,” Theodore tells Samantha and she tells him this isn’t the case. Easy for her to say; she has an unlimited capacity for learning and new experiences.
Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) tells him that falling in love is “a form of socially acceptable insanity.” I think this is true and I’m not sure that Samantha, convincing as she is (Johansson is very good as the voice, making it easy to see why Theodore would fall for her), is capable of that kind of insanity. What makes human love interesting is that it makes us better than we are. Our physiology want us to be promiscuous; love keeps us from being so. Our natures are selfish; love stops us from that. There is an aspect of love that is devoid of intelligence, so when that intelligence is artificial, it can’t make the distinction. It becomes a kind of romantic symbolism, which is the style used to describe the art of Cy Twombly, perhaps Theodore’s namesake, who blurred the lines between drawing and painting in the way that Theodore blurs the lines of real and artificial.
To raise these questions is thrilling; that they aren’t addressed in the movie is disappointing. Amy is working on a video game that replicates being a mother (you get points for making lunches and getting the kids to school on time, extra points if the other mothers are jealous), and the vast majority of people’s lives are occupied by watching, as Alan Watts wrote, “an electronic reproduction of life.” But what does that mean, not just for romance but for society? (The movie’s avoidance of these questions is even more interesting considering Alan Watts is referred to and is even reconstructed as an operating system.) None of this dooms Her, which is rich and warm and lovely, but I was left wanting much more. Maybe it’s me, not the movie. Nevertheless, the split was amiable. We just weren’t compatible. But we remain friends.