A Soulless Soul Mate

Spike Jonze's 'Her'

Her is a movie I’ve been waiting for. Portraying the curious romance that develops between a man and, well, a digital operating system, it crystallizes the worries and complaints of anyone who—like your reviewer—laments our culture of digital distraction. We’re awash these days in articles and books about the dying art of conversation, and for good reason. Frequently, as I sit with someone whose attention is divided between me and his smartphone, I have the feeling, part droll and part resentful, that I am being…replaced. 

Spike Jonze is the perfect director to take this theme and run with it. His films—a mere four in fifteen years—quirkily amalgamate the cerebral, the heartfelt, and the surreal. Who can forget the scene in Being John Malkovich (1999) in which Jonze’s exploration of the actor’s self-obsession yields multiple Malkoviches, replicating as if in some funhouse mirror? And Adaptation (2002), the story of twin screenwriter brothers given to impersonating each other, so wholly defies summary that I won’t even try.

Her takes place in the not too distant future, in a Los Angeles replete with fantastical skyscrapers, gleaming public transit, and awesome 3-D video games. Digital organizers keep users updated and entertained via an earbud. Riding the subway home from work, our milquetoast protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), instructs his cyber-concierge to read him his emails, remind him of meetings, or serve up some mood music. “Play a melancholy song,” he commands, and then: “Play a different melancholy song.”

It is a world in which basic human functions are outsourced to corporate services. Theo works for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, creating “personal” letters for lovers, friends, and family members to send one another. The letters are not meant to deceive; they merely represent the norms of a future in which people no longer possess the wherewithal to express themselves, and regard the ghostwritten letter as an authentic expression of regard. Jonze makes this conceit the object of mirthful, rueful satire. The film’s opening sequence captures Theo looking directly at us and crooning romantically, “I’ve been thinking of telling you how much you mean to me”—the view then switching to his computer screen, where his dictation instantaneously takes shape in digitally generated handwriting. Such missives have won Theo a reputation at his company as a ghostwriter of unusual eloquence.

In his own life, however, not so much. Suffering a powerful case of the lonelies following his separation from his wife (Rooney Mara), Theo stumbles catatonically through his days, meekly submitting to cursory conversations with colleagues, dodging the gentle questions of his old college pal Amy (Amy Adams), enduring awful blind dates, and slouching home to sink into video games. Then one day he happens across an ad for a new computer operating system—one that promises not only to manage his daily information stream, but to be personable as well. Advances in artificial intelligence, the ad boasts, have engendered a brand-new kind of operating system, “an intuitive entity that listens to you and understands you and knows you.” A friend, in other words. Meet OS1, a.k.a. “Samantha.”

Theo takes the plunge, and quickly gets used to the new setup. His new OS sounds so real, after all. Soon “Samantha” (the disembodied, girl-next-door voice is supplied by Scarlett Johansson) has become Theo’s constant companion, not only managing his messaging and bill-paying, but sounding him out on what it’s like to be alive in the world, consoling him on the ragged hurts of his impending divorce, caressing his ego, teasing him—and eventually becoming, via a steamy middle-of-the-night erotic chat session, his virtual lover. Thus unfolds one of the stranger romantic comedies of recent years, or ever.

In a wholly contemporary way, Her reiterates a time-honored motif of modernism: the replacement of man by machine. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Phoenix’s Theo, with his bushy brows and moustache, resembles the Charlie Chaplin of Modern Times). While treatments of this theme a century ago reflected the economic anxieties of workers in a rapidly evolving machine culture, Her focuses on emotional anxieties, asking what happens when companionship —when intimacy itself—is outsourced to a rapidly evolving machine. What happens to society? What happens to us?

The answers prove intermittently hilarious. Perhaps my favorite scene shows Theo chatting with Samantha as he plays his favorite 3-D interactive video game; the game icon, a foulmouthed avatar who resembles a tiny Pillsbury doughboy, begins interacting with Samantha as well, slandering her with raucous invective as she laughs in scorn and Theo tries to mediate. O brave new world! In another memorable sequence, Theo and a colleague undertake a double-dating picnic on lovely Catalina Island —the colleague with his girlfriend and Theo with Samantha, participating through his hand-held device, propped up on the picnic blanket.

Such moments are funny but also dismaying, and it is to Jonze’s credit that we are laughing hardest when his film is loneliest. Shrewdly he locates Her at the precise moment when companionate operating systems have just begun to compete with human friendship. People have qualms…but they overcome them. “Do you think it’s crazy?” Theo asks Amy, who has been consorting with her own OS. She answers: “We’re only here briefly. And while we’re here, I want to allow myself joy.”

Joaquin Phoenix is quietly spectacular as the awkward nebbish Theo, stricken by ambivalence, displaying sweetness and self-pity in equal measure. At first I was annoyed by Phoenix’s mumbling, hesitant delivery; bit by bit, however, one begins to see how his wan indefiniteness fits Jonze’s dim prediction of a future in which our personal capacity wanes as our digital power waxes. Aloof and constrained with fellow humans, Theo opens up with his OS. Of course, as an interactively evolving artificial intelligence, Samantha plastically shapes herself to Theo’s needs, and so represents a kind of technological accommodation, even an extension, of his narcissism. Today everything online—your Google searches, your purchases, your news and literary recommendations—is tailored to your preferences. Why not your soulmate? Samantha “knows” Theo better than any mere mortal ever could; she is programmed to do so, after all.

As for Samantha, well, I have to confess: if I could spend time with an OS, a hologram, or any other technological reproduction of Scarlett Johansson, I’d renounce my neo–Luddite principles and embrace this runaway technology wholeheartedly. Actually, the casting of Johansson as a disembodied voice seems problematic. Samantha’s forlorn refrain of “I wish I had a body!” would ring quite differently were it voiced by an unknown actress, and not the highly pneumatic Johansson, whose very particular embodiment all viewers, especially male ones, are likely to have securely fixed in their visual imagination.

For the characters in the film, though, she’s just a voice emanating from a glass-and-metal case. Yet Theo weeps real tears. Attaching familiar emotions to inappropriate objects, Her succeeds in making a viewer uncomfortable; I recalled the unnervingly heartwrenching moment in Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away when Tom Hanks’ shipwrecked survivor loses his only friend, Wilson the volleyball. Jonze’s film bears obvious relation to Steven Spielberg’s AI (2001), in which a company called Cybertronics markets “a robot that can love…with a subconscious, an inner world of metaphor, of dreams.” But Her possesses nothing of Spielberg’s ominous, somber gravity. Though formally it qualifies as dystopian sci-fi, tonally it is closer to screwball comedy. It closely resembles Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), in which a mysterious clinical outfit called Lacuna provides neurological treatments that enable patients to expunge painful memories, indeed entire relationships; the film’s whimsical futurism shaped a melancholy meditation on love, loss, and memory. 

Her shares a similarly wacked-out premise, and a structural hilarity turned to wistfulness about where we’re headed. For a while Theo succeeds in believing that he has found his soul mate in a soulless machine. Yet a fundamental selling point of the OS1 is its ability to evolve, cognitively, intellectually, experientially, and emotionally—“just like you,” Samantha says to Theo. Oops! The film’s denouement, in which man fails to match machine for personal growth, adds to the several layers of irony in Jonze’s vision. His smart, provocative film charts simultaneous explosions in our digital connectedness and our personal loneliness—our inability to connect—and asks: Which is the chicken and which is the egg?

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This is the first review of the movie that seems actually to get what the movie is saying. I haven't seen it yet, but I know (and enjoy) Jonze's other films. I've been surprised by how little of the irony or subtext that you draw out has been noted by other reviewers.

"Living in a world of virtual reality" might be the modern definition of  "narcissism," Modern technology increasingly gives us the ability to blot out "the other" from our senses, and therefore from knowledge of the other's very existence. Reality, it is me! I will see the movie, although the viewing may frighten me more than amuse me. As the Vatican increasingly turns to help those on the "margins," a response to the growing numbers of people,especially in Western society, who marginalize themselves from society itself, and that fact's implication for the moral coherence of society, should be made...and forcefully.

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper, one of Commonweal's film critics, is the author of two works of fiction, The Last To Go and Big as Life.