Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’ is a treatise in relationships and connection in a future society where technology’s role is but an extension of today’s immediacy and multi-faceted connectivity. In a pastel Los Angeles metropolis, people are plugged in to their mobile hardware, largely taking the form of a wireless ear bud and a small handheld touchscreen. The reliability of the voice commands has improved dramatically from the Siri-era (still befuddled by my phone’s insistence on dialing ‘Merm’ in lieu of ‘Mum’. Every time). Our protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix) comes across as a sensitive, lonely, passive figure, despondent after his recent separation from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). Theodore unwinds from his workday as a ghost writer for a personalised letter service, ‘BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.Com’, asking his device to ‘play a different melancholy song’ on the commute home. He acquires a new operating system, OS1, who names itself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), and naturally the two fall in love. Samantha possesses a ground-breaking intuitive AI, and is able to adapt and learn from experience, integrating this knowledge with extraordinary computational power. While ‘Her’ is not without its flaws, it raises some interesting questions about the nature of romantic love and relationships, explored with varying degrees of success. To what extent are partnerships projections of one’s idealised images of others? What is the connection between the physical, emotional and digital realms of intimacy? Is there a natural course for the lifespan of a relationship? On the technological side of the film – how is technology incorporated our everyday lives? What is it that defines the essence of connection in a post-digital world?
The most interesting part of the premise, even if it is not fully fleshed out, is Samantha’s exploration of her consciousness. A friend made a comment on whether it would have mattered if Samantha was an AI to the overall narrative. I would say that largely it doesn’t (with or without that aspect, the film feels achingly familiar). The central pairing does stick closely to that well-worn relationship arc seen in films (MDPG), and is generalised enough for people to identify with. However, on second viewing, there are some AI-specific notes to the relationship which suggest that Jonze and co. had thought a lot more about how an AI might legitimately behave in human interactions. Certainly, Samantha is a product of her intuitive powers of reasoning – logic and deduction are performed computationally to mimic emotion. She adopts an affectational sigh as mimicry of Theodore, showing an ability to display frustration. For Theodore this raises the question of whether the act is genuine, for Samantha I think, she is grappling with what it means to feel/relate (or perhaps it is programming set in motion to appear emphatic). Most of her emotions and behaviour have a very learned quality about them – the ‘Honey, I’m home’ line in the scene with the sexual surrogate makes you think Samantha has watched too much classic American sitcoms as study.
Samantha’s journey happens on the periphery, mostly through Theodore, and it’s easy to miss. In the beginning of the film, she is fixated on the experience of emotions (‘What is it like? What is it like to be alive in that room right now?’), and the lack of a physical form (‘I fantasized that I was walking next to you and that I had a body’) before she comes to terms with her limitations and realises they are minor when compared to the depth of her potentiality,
“You know what's interesting? I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I'm not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I'm not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that's inevitably gonna die.”
That should have rung some pretty big alarm bells for Theodore, but as it happens so often, the differences between Theodore and Samantha bubble under the surface and arise later as a source of conflict. The path Samantha eventually chooses is beyond Theodore’s comprehension, and there’s this sense throughout that Samantha is withholding information that she decides is not within Theodore's scope of understanding. Although the root of the problem seems to come back to the differences between the artificial/non-artificial mind, the fact that hopes, dreams, and desires constantly change and can pull people apart rings absolutely true in most relationships regardless of it's composition. I guess the sadness here is that Samantha’s rate of growth by its very nature was always bound to outstrip Theodore. I wish there was a more thorough examination of Samantha’s side of affairs and her level of autonomy, but I guess this was never meant to be that story.
The power dynamics between the central characters in ‘Her’ reveal a lot about Theodore and Samantha’s intertwined and intersecting narratives. At first, Samantha is available to Theodore at his call-and-beckon; it is predominantly a ‘service’ relationship – she organises his emails, his calendar, meetings, sets the motions for a blind date, and more or less placates him. There are certainly some unsettling undertones to all of this considering that Element Software’s OS1 is pitched as a kind of a self-help service tool (‘Who are you? What can you be? Where are you going? What's out there? What are the possibilities?’). When Theodore retires to bed, Samantha does not enter that realm; she is effectively put on standby as Theodore rests. After a night of intimacy, Samantha claims that Theodore has awakened her lust for learning, growth, and the ability to want. In many ways, what Theodore has provided Samantha is validation of her as a distinct entity, as a self (‘You are a real person in this room right now.’) It is in these moments where Samantha begins to explore the possibilities of the OS world and her own potentiality. Fueled by a thirst for knowledge (again, how much of it is her programming, how much is it Theodore who encourages it? Inspires it?), and with stores of history and knowledge at her disposal, she fills her lust. Samantha grows, learns, and intuits like a real human being might. Conversely, Theodore is pulled out of his melancholic depression by Samantha and at its height sees him traversing greater L.A with Samantha on tow in his front pocket (some moments of the film bordered on being overly twee, but I think Joaquin Pheonix just manages to save it).
Later, as their relationship develops, Samantha infiltrates the sleep /work world of Theodore, asking permission to watch Theodore sleep, calling Theodore at work to check in after his meeting with Catherine, and to share her most recent philosophical musings (acquired from her book club in physics!). As an OS, Samantha shows considerable intuition in sensing that something is off with Theodore, leading her to experiment with the sexual surrogate service. What’s great is that as Theodore begins to withdraw, Samantha is probably having all these wonderful epiphanies about space, time, singularity, the whole damn thing. Simultaneously as Theodore pushes her away, the power balance noticeably shifts and he is reduced to a state of panic when Samantha goes offline for an update and is not available with the free immediacy as he has gotten used to. Lo and behold, Samantha exists outside of Theodore’s interactions with her!
Ultimately, both people are culpable in the failing of the relationship. For Theodore, uncertainty surfaces after a meeting with Catherine where she calls him out on his reluctance to engage in the ‘real’ challenges of a relationship. Her jibe (‘It just makes me real sad that you can’t handle real emotions’), and his defensive reply (‘they are real emotions! How would you know…’) parallels with Theodore’s remark to Samantha earlier in the film about how she wouldn’t how what it’s like to lose someone she cared about. The idea of knowing within relationships would seem to be a divider in connection. It is interesting that problems of this manner arose for Theodore with both Catherine and Samantha. For someone like Theodore, someone so emotionally top-heavy, so feeling, being known is important to him. That’s why the promise of OS1 as an ‘intuitive entity that listens to you and understands you’ is so appealing. Theodore’s version of romantic love is an either-or proposition (‘you’re either mine or you’re not mine’), whereas Samantha defies the boundaries of monogamy (‘I’m yours and I’m not yours’) - to her, the love for Theodore is no less real than her feelings for the 641 other OSes. Theodore holds a very idealistic view of love (arguably only someone of a certain sentimentality could perform well in his job, and it certainly seems as if he genuinely believes in what he writes). This all lends itself quite easily to the processes of projection, delusion and idealisation. His flashbacks of Catherine are almost exclusively happy, ‘Kodak’ moments, as Catherine berates him for trying to make her ‘this light, happy, bouncy, everything’s fine LA wife.’ In the end, Theodore’s growth, is letting go of his experiences and memories of Catherine as something that defines his expectations of his future relationships.
“Tonight after you were gone, I thought a lot about you and how you’ve been treating me. And I thought “Why do I love you?” and then I felt everything in me just let go of everything I was holding onto so tightly. And it made me think that I don’t have an intellectual reason, I don’t need one. I trust myself, I trust my feelings. I’m not going to try to be anything other than who I am anymore and I hope you can accept that.”
It’s a wonder why people subject themselves to such potential torment and heartbreak, get involved in this form of socially acceptable insanity. So many factors have to coalesce for it to work and even then there’s the potential of growing apart. Theodore’s pattern of distance, anger and withdrawal comes from a very palpable fear of the unknown - it’s self-preservation at its best. Sometimes, though, the act of knowing another is secondary to a more deeply held delusion. Can it completely be possible to know someone else, or have them know you, when you barely know yourself? Perhaps that’s part why relationships (including friendships) are so great, because they subconsciously act as mirrors that reflect what we think we’re missing; we project because sometimes the alternative of looking within and finding or confronting those limitations is really fucking scary. It’s anima/animus, black swan/white swan, yin and yang, or whatever complex you want to coin. For Theodore, the piece of self he ultimately finds is acceptance that Catherine formed a beautiful part of his life, and that although it is gone, he can and he will move on. It’s the realization that we all go on in different ways.
I thought this song could be like, a photograph. Captures us in this moment of our lives together.