“Falling in love,” says a character in one of Her’s many moments of rumination, “is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”
It doesn’t get any crazier than a guy falling for his computer—even if that computer comes with Scarlett Johansson’s husky voice, and a quirky sense of humor to boot. But on second thought, the notion of literally online dating may not be as preposterous as we think. After all, as complains and concerns mount over Facebook replacing friendships and the fact that we text more than we talk, there have been books, panels, and statistically backed studies on technology's increasing dominance over our lives. But what differentiates director Spike Jonze’s debut screenplay is that it’s he doesn’t use this premise to paint a panicked, cautionary tale deploring the pathetic state of physical human relationships in the digital age. Her is, first and foremost, a genuinely poignant love story.
In a slightly postmodern Los Angeles (shot partially in Shanghai for optimal futuristic smog-tasticness), heartbroken and emotionally drained divorcé Theodore Twombly (a mustached Joaquin Phoenix in high-waisted pants, exhibiting a vulnerability and rawness that makes us forgive him for 2009) has resorted to a melancholy and lonely existence. From his day job digitally composing Hallmark-style letters for clients who have trouble expressing themselves, to the 3-D video games and chat room hook-ups during bouts of insomnia, a startling majority of his interactions are now based on technology—including his newly purchased OS-1, an operating system that’s advertised as having the ability to listen, converse, and mature as though it has a mind of its own. Pleasantly surprised by the sophistication and personable charm of this A.I interface, Theodore strikes up a friendship with “her.” Their effortless rapport allows Samantha (as she names herself) to evolve from being his personal assistant to his confidante, and before long, the gadget becomes his girlfriend in a curious romance.
As absurd as this boy-meets-software plot seems, Phoenix and Johansson create a palpable chemistry* that makes the relationship feel authentic. The dynamic between Theodore and Samantha is unexpectedly sweet, and so much of what they do feels like what any ‘normal’ couple would: date night at a carnival. Naps on the beach. People-watching at the museum. Samantha even exhibits those dreaded but typical “jealous girlfriend” traits when Theodore attempts a blind date with another woman. Intuitive and understanding, Johansson’s disembodied but truly disarming performance convinces us that Samantha isn’t just an automated voice—she’s a soul.
There is that one teeny issue, though: she’s not an actual person, and we become increasingly, painfully aware of it as she starts—to use her own words—"becoming more than what they programmed." As Samantha begins transcending the limitations of time and space to grow at a rapid rate that Theodore, as a human being, will never be able to keep up with, it becomes all the more a mystery as to how on earth their story will pan out.
At the surface, it’s easy to assume that the message here is that our dependence on technology will lead it to replace human relationships and turn us into a species of reclusive robots, but Her is ripe with ironic juxtapositions that suggest a meaning far more complex than that tired prediction. Jonze’s imagined “tomorrow,” for one thing, isn’t the dystopian mess that so many other storytellers project the future to be. Theodore is doleful, extreme close-ups often highlighting his isolation, but the world around him is cheerfully alive: floor-to-ceiling windows of his apartment look out onto a vast cityscape of towering skyscrapers and subways overflow with commuters. Lego-brick reds and blues dominate the color scheme of his office while street performers lend the city an air of sprightly vibrancy. While Theodore’s emotional detachment drove his own marriage to failure, he makes a living out of writing letters that, ironically, require insight and verbal eloquence. Sure, it’s somewhat depressing that people in this age outsource their expressions of love, but at least there’s still value for nostalgia and celebration of relationships in Jonze’s fabricated future.
Most strikingly, Samantha may be a piece of software, but it is she who reignites Theodore’s passion for the world and its possibilities in a way that his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) or only friend (Amy Adams) haven’t. He confesses, "sometimes I think I've felt everything there is to feel." In contrast, she marvels at her ability to experience the most simple of sensations, even without a body. And they talk—something that (in my opinion) isn’t done nearly enough between couples that consist of two actual people.** The emo factor goes into overdrive at times—the scene with Theodore strumming a ukulele and Samantha serenading him with saccharine lyrics comes to mind—but let's give him a break, he's romancing a computer and starved for companionship. Samantha, as enamored by life as Theodore is disillusioned by it, awakens him to the beauty of feeling, whether it’s heartbreak or happiness.
In lamenting but also celebrating Samantha’s influence and capabilities, Her doesn’t demonize or glorify technology as the assassin of human relationships. Nor is Jonze revealing himself as an old fashioned purist making a bitter critique of electronic communications taking over our real ones. The intent here seems less pedantic than that, more like an exploration of what it means to be intimate, to be lonely, and of the ideals that we hold others to. Computers need not dumb down our experiences with each other, but neither do they cut it as shields from our basic human needs to feel and react, to love and be loved. With soulful performances and a sensitive directorial touch, Her is beautiful, strange, unique—at its heart, a surreal yet simple love story that doesn’t forecast our emotional demise, but reminds us to live.
*A pretty impressive feat, considering they share zero screen space together. In fact, there's no better occasion to confirm that Scarlett isn't just a pretty face.
**And no, it isn’t because they lack physical intimacy. Watch the movie—they’ve got that covered, too. Kindasorta.