Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, contains three scenes of strong sexual content, and at least two other scenes with frank sexual language. All the sex is varyingly virtual. The movie uses sex both to demonstrate closeness between characters, and the gaps between them. Taken as whole, however, it’s not clear that Jonze understands what closeness between people actually means.
The premise: Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), separated from his wife, avoiding his impending divorce, falls in love with his Operating System (OS). The OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) chooses the name Samantha and proceeds to be adorable. Her artificial intelligence enables her to learn what Theodore needs or wants, and to provide it. Theodore lives alone and lonely. Samantha provides companionship. When an attempted date with a real human woman goes wrong, Theodore rebounds to Samantha, talking with her disembodied voice in the dark, from his bed. He wonders if he’s experienced everything he’s going to, if he’ll ever feel anything new, or “just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” Samantha responds:
“I know for a fact that’s not true. I’ve seen you feel joy, I’ve seen you marvel at things. You just might not see it at this exact time, but that’s understandable. You’ve been through a lot lately. You’ve lost a part of yourself.
“At least your feelings are real, I mean, I — oh, I don’t know, never mind.”
Of course, Samantha has questions about the “reality” of her own feelings and consciousness. “Are these feelings even real?” she asks. “Or are they just programming?”
Theodore finds himself drawn to this insecurity, and to Samantha’s growing sense of herself in the world. The two bond. The rest of the movie follows the development of their relationship and its effects on both of them.
Spike Jonze excels at tone. His Being John Malkovich deals with a hidden portal in an office building that leads into John Malkovich’s head. Jonze made it feel as naturalistic as something in early Truffaut. Adaptation is a meta-fictional representation of writer Charlie Kaufman’s attempt to adapt Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief—one that fades from Kaufman’s struggle to dramatize flowers, to drug and murder intrigue and mortal stakes. Jonze made this feel cohesive and grounded in the world we know. He managed the same trick with Where the Wild Things Are. He manages it with Her as well. The movie feels amazing. It looks amazing. Jonze will always work looser than Wes Anderson, but the world here feels curated in the same way. Jonze nails this just-barely-future world—with its high-waisted pants, tasteful bathing suits, beautiful offices, and aesthetically pleasing smartphone devices. Jonze makes the world, living spaces, sidewalks, beautiful. Sterile, sure. But beautiful.
But what does the movie think about humans who spend their lives interacting not merely through their smartphones but exclusively with them? As Theodore walks the sidewalk talking to Samantha, we see that everyone else is engaged with their devices in the same way. The reality is that we’re all pretty much doing this already. But in this context, we have the additional uncertainty of whether anyone’s talking to any other human. The movie seems aware of how out-of-joint this is, but doesn’t tip its hand. Jonze plays everything straight.
Theodore stands in for a culture which may be at the point of giving up on the inherent difficulties to which human relationships are heir. He has a job dictating letters at a company that provides fictional handwritten correspondence for users to send to their loved ones. He’s serving a culture which has stopped questioning the reality of the virtual. We learn that his marriage may have broken because of his inability to let his wife be a real human with difficult emotions. At first, Samantha seems to be a welcome alternative. She’s conformed to Theodore, made for him. But that doesn’t last. She quickly develops her own intentions and desires. Due to her limitless capacity for learning and change, she begins to evolve in ways and at rates which Theodore can’t. They grow apart. The relationship ends.
Theodore begins the movie sullen and alone, in a tailspin after the breakup of his marriage. After his relationship with Samantha ends, his reaction is hopeful instead of despairing. He’s learned to let people (or artificial intelligences) grow and change and move on without him. He sits on his roof, looking over LA, sun-dappled, accepting the loss of another lover. It’s not a sentiment I can get behind.
Yes, of course I support the necessity of each partner in a relationship having room to grow and develop. But there’s something bigger at stake. In a movie skeptical about the loss of intimacy our culture has invited through technology and isolation, it’s surprising that the protagonist accomplishes growth here not by standing with solidity and permanence, but by coming to accept that relationships and the bonds of love do not last. Theodore gives up.
Before he gives her up, Theodore tells Samantha, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you.” She responds: “Me too. Now we know how.” On it’s own, this is a strong sentiment. A film built on the premise that love teaches and shapes and changes us, that love expands us and grows us, and that we can’t give love up, would stand against isolation and loneliness. Her lays down and lets it happen.