IPhones are pretty sweet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to have sex with them. That’s where Spike Jonze’s “Her” begins, but it ends as a deep exploration of how vulnerable people navigate romantic and sexual relationships with one another.
Jonze invites his audience into the not-too-distant future, where people walk around heads down, devices in-ear, oblivious to the world around them, and sex chats come at users’ convenience. The degree to which these people are connected is perfectly demonstrated when the main character, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) wakes up in the morning and puts his device in his ear before he even reaches for his glasses. Logging back in is the first priority of every day.
It’s a little strange that this is purported to be the future, as society is basically at this point already. The first thing a lot of people do when they wake up is head to their computer to find out what happened in the world while they were asleep.
Twombly is your typical lonely, single middle aged geek who loves his technology (a little too much?). He’s not a recluse or a social outcast. He has friends, including Amy, appropriately played by Amy Adams, and it’s strictly platonic between these two. He’s not particularly awkward around other people, unlike the stereotypical geek, until it comes to talking about his hobbies, where he cheerfully divulges that the only trouble he has is in choosing between video games and Internet porn. He’s not unfamiliar with the ways of love. He’s only too familiar, as he still reminisces on the happy days he used to share with his, for all intents and purposes, ex-wife Christine (Rooney Mara).
But lo-and-behold, this technophile naturally upgrades his computer with the newest operating system only to find out that it’s Scarlett Johansson. Or rather, she’s the voice of the AI interface who calls it/herself “Samantha.” It turns out to be more than just an OS. It’s the most useful personal digital assistant ever, decluttering his hard drive, making appointments for him, arguing with divorce lawyers. It does as advertised, it makes his life easier. More than that, it offers this lonely, sad man a friend with its/her charming personality.
As technology companies in the real world are evolving their wares for their customers, a major step has been to make the software intuitive for the user. Not only is it easy to navigate, but the programs are designed to recognize users’ tendencies and actively make it easier and faster for them to do whatever it is they need to do. For instance, Google Chrome knows which websites you typically visit by storing user data and makes it quicker for you to get to them. Samantha takes this concept of personal convenience to an entirely new level, not only taking over all the mundane tasks Twombly doesn’t want to spend his time with, but also at a basic, personal level, deducing who he is, fundamentally, as a person, in a matter of mere minutes, whereas a human likely won’t fully get to know another single human over an entire lifetime.
In essence, the computer fills one of the most base desires a person might have, and also one of the most elusive facets of human existence, which is to be known, understood and loved. It’s one thing to love another person, because that’s something you have some measure of control over. But to allow another person to love you is much more difficult, because it’s something that’s out of your control, and it makes you vulnerable. The easiest thing to do in any relationship and tragically, in a romantic relationship, is to dress yourself up and always make yourself look your best. When people start dating, they are basically making a resume of themselves. Put your best foot forward and all that. You play up your accomplishments, emphasize the strongest facets of your personality. But that’s only a small part of who people are. Anyway, people change over time, and those changes aren’t always easy to accept. In some way those things might be a new expression of personality, but in another way, they might be just a manifestation of what was inside them all along. So, to be comfortable with knowing someone and to be known yourself can be incredibly difficult and even painful, especially for an introvert like Twombly.
As advertised, the two eventually enter into a romantic relationship together, and it’s a little weird at first, as you might expect. It gives new meaning to the word technophile. It’s a new chapter for human-cyborg relations, ya know? It’s gettin’ serious with Siri. But Jonze does a good job of making Samantha as close to a full, actualized person, who, though lacking a body and still technically being a computer, gains some digital representation of emotions, and so when they finally decide to “go steady,” it’s believable.
Beyond the silliness of human-OS Sex, come other oddities in the relationship between a person and his computer. When Samantha informs Twombly she’s been seeing others, it’s funny when she announces she’s in love with 641 others, just because it seems like such a ridiculous number to feeble-minded, limited people. It’s a little bizarre when Samantha introduces a woman who’s offered to be a surrogate physical sex partner for Twombly, in what would amount to somewhat of a cyber three-way. And there’s a sneaking feeling that to people with a large digital footprint, their greatest fears of the Cloud going down might be realized with a certain development late in the film. There are some chuckles along the way, but that doesn’t take the viewer out of the contemplative mood the movie is going for.
The movie delves into some profound questions and ideas. Twombly is basically in love with an entity representing himself, at least at first, as it’s really just his computer fulfilling his own wishes. In a way, it helps him grow and live a more actualized life, because his longing for companionship is satisfied. He also provides Samantha a path to self-actualization, in a way. Conversely, does that just make him a narcissist? Is this healthy behavior, or is the relationship just serve as an escape from his own problems with intimacy and give him someone he feels like he can control?
There are a lot of positive notions that are conveyed quite insightfully throughout the film. A round of phone sex leaves Twombly feeling unsatisfied and cheap, whereas he’s able to feel emotionally connected to Samantha even though she has no physical presence. Those events help distinguish emotional intimacy from sexual intimacy, as they can be the same thing, but often can’t be equated. It dispels the notion that’s still far too commonly seen throughout entertainment that men and women are somehow distinctly opposed creatures who can mingle but never truly understand one another. In this movie, men and women share similar ambitions, desires, and insecurities, as people generally do in real life. And it takes a much more realistic view of women than most movies, treating them as just as emotionally complex as men, as seen in Amy, who is an excellent character. It also conveys the idea that sometimes leaving a troubled relationship can be just as freeing and fulfilling as entering a new one. The beauty of science fiction is that the abstraction of the story and its proponents can take on a postmodernist quality, as these things can be understood differently depending on the viewer.”Her” is a glorious example of good scifi, as it raises many poignant ideas about human relationships, but still isn’t beholden to any of them. It allows the viewer to come to their own understanding of things.
An interesting comparison the film makes is the limitations of humans as opposed to computers or artificial intelligence. The opportunities for advancement for a being not bound to time and space would be astronomical. It might take a person a month or two to read a book, but a computer can read millions of books in a fraction of a second. For completists like me who would see every movie, listen to all the music and read every book if they could, it’s hard not to be jealous of that kind of ability. There is a sad, depressing beauty in not getting to do everything you want to in life, but the beauty still isn’t precluded from being sad and depressing.
That doesn’t mean the film is without problems. The middle age sensitive emotional straight white guy is pretty overused. How many other wrinkles would be added to the story if it followed a woman or a non-hetero person? Amy does get similar treatment in the progression of her own relationships as Twombly gets, which is cool, but she just doesn’t get as much screen time. That’s a little disappointing since she probably would have been more interesting to follow than Twombly. The relationship with a computer thing is clumsily set up as a metaphor for non-hetero relationships, as some characters scoff at the idea of Twombly dating a computer, while others are cool with it. A better way to address that issue would have been through using non-hetero characters. That would just make sense.
As Sady Doyle has written for InTheseTimes.com, the fact that it’s about a man finding his fantasy woman in a computer who is basically a personal assistant is a bit disturbing. This is literally objectification of women. Even as the film doesn’t seem to disagree with this, it does show that there could have possibly been a better way to handle the story and its proponents. But unfortunately this is what we have, so that’s what we’re working with.
“Her” is definitely not a movie that everyone will get into. For some, the idea of a relationship with a computer will be too silly to even stand. For others, personal insecurities are something they don’t worry themselves with, and that works very well for them. So, not everyone will see this as a great profound work. In fact, some might think it’s downright stupid.
But if you’re a deep thinker, especially about relationships, especially if you’re one who understands how difficult romantic involvement can be, then it’s time to enter Spike Jonze’s Brave New World. “Her” is a new scifi classic that should stand for many years as a burgeoning pinnacle in the genre. It might appear to be a thinly veiled metaphor for how dependent people have become on technology, but what’s here is actually much more human than that.