The opening title card of Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, shows the simple, monosyllabic name of the movie etched in a font that looks like handwriting. It’s the first layered irony in this movie which is all about physicality and touch, personality and intimacy, subjects and identity. The first scene shows the film’s main character, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), at work. He writes love letters by reciting them out load, the words appearing on his computer monitor in a similar “handwritten” font. They are not his own missives, rather letters written between lovers who have paid to have Theodore’s company draft them. In Her’s near-future, sci-fi setting, even feeling has been outsourced to a third-party contractor.
Her uses futurism to examine the way technological mediations arrest – and facilitate – human connectedness. What is perhaps most captivating about Jonze’s future is that it actually seems eerily present. It is a world of glittering high rises, empty apartments, video games, and iPhones. Theodore lives a solitary, lonely life since separating from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), and in the film, their past together appears much like the video games he plays each night, in flicking montages of projected images. Theodore’s best (only?) friend, Amy (Amy Adams) is a documentary film producer who lives in his building. She sets him up with a blind date (Olivia Wilde), and he jumps onto a Facebook equivalent to check out her photos. When he can’t sleep, a phone sex social media site hooks him up with another horny insomniac, and in seconds he exchanges dirty talk with “SexyKitten” (Kristen Wiig).
The technology in Her is elaborate, but only scantly more advanced than our own. The only real jump is a new operating system that promises an artificial intelligent personal assistant. Theodore’s new OS, a raspy-voiced computerized personality who names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), turns out to be more human than he could have anticipated. He begins to fall in love with his computer. However, despite this technological oddity, the relationship unfolds like a typical love story, from friendship and familiarity through to a deep emotional connectedness, and out through the other end of loneliness and despair.
In the context of the film, the fact that Samantha is an artificial intelligence is treated as merely a novelty, a small obstacle, but by no means odd or perverse. When Theodore’s boss invites him and Samantha on an outing to Catalina Island, he mentions Samantha is an OS. “Cool,” his boss says matter of factly. Even Amy is simply amused, and not at all dismissive of the fact that Theodore has fallen in love with a machine. Eventually, she confesses to her own deep friendship with her new OS.
The real technological marvel here is that the programmers haven’t just produced human intelligence, they’ve created a genuine 21st century human soul, full of self-preoccupation, emotional tenderness, and psychological anxiety. The relationship with Theodore broadens Samantha’s experience of reality, as she learns about emotion and connectedness. “Are these feelings or are thy just programming,” she wonders during one of their late night chats, before saying that she is “discovering herself.” Much of Her plays like an unending series of personalized Facebook status updates, snippets of emotional experience shared between Theodore and Samantha.
Her’s achievement is that this emotional ruminating is both honest and sincere, without ever become saccharine or sentimental. Within the logic of the film, it seems to make sense that it takes a computer-generated personality to break through in a world where relationships, as Theodore’s blind date (Oliva Wilde) represents, is typically defined by a Brave New World-style sexuality that turns sex and commitment into something rudimentary and passionless. And as Theodore’s phone sex and letter writing suggest, experience in Her is already largely disembodied. Samantha can’t provide him with physical intimacy, but with her sexy voice whispering and giggling in his ear, she does provide him with immediacy, and perhaps more importantly, a way of being singularly emotionally and intellectually available to him. They even discover a way to have “sex.” Jonze brings the screen to black for more than an entire minute and we listen to Theodore and Samantha’s love cries. It’s a curious scene, a kind of inverse pornography, suggesting that the unitive satisfaction of orgasmic stimulation is rooted more in the imagination than in the senses.
That tension between sense and imagination, even more than considerations of Samatha’s artificiality, is central to Her’s exploration of love and human happiness. The film’s entire style and visual language is bound up in an ethereal sense of melancholy, rendering experience of the present and the past as flittering cinematic montage. “The past is a story we tell ourselves,” Theodore even says at one point, invoking Proustian overtones. It’s an almost gnostic vision, which sees the body not so much as sinful, but at least as an annoyance or impediment. This is made literal when Samantha finds a woman to act as a sexual proxy for Samantha and Theodore, but as the two begin to make love, the sensitive Theodore can’t bring himself to carry through with having sex with a stranger.
What Theodore seeks, instead, is a love climaxed not by physical union but by a deep and personal anchoring of one’s sense of self and personal identity to another. It lends an almost quasi-religious aspect to Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. He discovers love in a disembodied being, a personal “other” whom he alone has access to. Wandering around Los Angeles with a camera phone perched in his pocket for Samantha to “see,” it is almost as if Theodore has found happiness as a monastic romantic, his life swept up in a perpetual prayer-conversation with his sexy operating system.
Jonze said of his film that he wrote it, in part, as a way to dump everything he was feeling at a given time into a single movie. The form of the film, largely an isolated dialogue between two lovers, allows Her to convey a bevy of reflections and musings on love and life. But there is another not-so-veiled autobiographical subtext to Her: its visual and thematic affinity with Lost In Translation (2003), which was made by Jonze’s ex-wife, Sofia Coppola. The two films share actress Scarlett Johansson, and they share a dissociated urban setting that offers a metaphoric space for considerations of emotional isolation, divorce, and contemporary dissociation. Both portray stylized contemporary loneliness, where technology, convenience, comfort, and personalization have rewritten experience and transformed it something hopelessly isolated — silo-ized. And in both a kind sexually-charged form of platonic love offers a way out of personal misery. And yet, in both films, lover’s whispers – whether they come from Bill Murray’s Bob Harris or Theodore’s operating system Samantha – leave love itself unconsummated.