Think, if you can, on a time before technology became ingrained in our social consciousness, before our cell phones and laptops became an extension of our very selves. In the dawn of a new year, it still stands to reason that future generations will find it almost unthinkable that we managed to live any kind of existence without YouTube, Facebook, email, even Google. I belong to perhaps the last generation to be alive before the Internet became a household commodity, yet I would be lying if I said I didn’t constantly use, let alone enjoy, the plethora of technological innovations at my disposal. Despite the promise of constant advancement in technology, so many people have come to rely upon it as an emotional crutch, as a distraction from confronting or even being ourselves. The great paradox of this exciting era is how technology has both unified us as a global society yet isolated us from even our closest companions. This is the conceit at the core of Her, the newest film from Spike Jonze. That it’s also a sincere and aching love story makes it an acute observation of us not only as a society, but as a species.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is both a completely ordinary guy and a rather exceptional person in that he writes Thank-You letters addressed from and to people he doesn’t know at all. This concept of having complete strangers writing intimate missives of affection for you is rather unsettling while also completely in the realm of possibility. After all, in a world that’s demanding results at a faster and faster pace, it’s only sensible that we hire professionals to deal with any trivialities that take up any of our precious time. Yet Theodore isn’t an exploitative hack but a forlorn man who’s lost some of the earnest spark his letters are imbued with. He’s reeling from a break-up with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and spends his free time playing video games or having sex chats over the phone with anonymous night owls. Both of these past-times are laced with wicked humor that doesn’t make light of Theodore as much as it marvels at the absurd turns these situations take.
Theodore decides to find a companion, and find one he does in the form of a new Operating System that has artificial intelligence. Theodore decides upon the “gender” of the OS (female), and after thinking on the matter for 2/100ths of a second she christens herself Samantha. Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) becomes Theodore’s confidant, relaying his emails and conversing through an earpiece he wears while displaying wit and compassion, both of which Theodore sorely needs. But how can that be? Of course machines aren’t capable of any emotion, not if it falls outside of their programming, and Samantha herself begins to question whether anything she feels is “real”. Yet as her knowledge grows at an exponential rate, Samantha acquires sentience. It certainly appears that way to Theodore, and their friendship blossoms into romance. They even have sex, though how that’s possible I will leave for you to discover.
This premise sounds a little shaky, and in lesser hands it very well could have been a disaster. Yet Jonze, who has directed only four feature films in his nearly two-decade career as a filmmaker, accomplished the herculean task of making me care for this man and his computer with unflappable sincerity that nevertheless remains aware of how bizarre the existence of this romance really is. Theodore’s wife is of course appalled to hear that he is dating a machine, yet Theodore’s old friend Amy (Amy Adams) is not only happy for him but has even initiated a friendship with the OS her husband left behind soon after their divorce. It isn’t before too long that we see numerous bystanders having unheard conversations with their respective Operating Systems. This could very easily have turned into a straight-up farce or black comedy, yet Jonze strikes a delicate balance. The look of this futuristic Los Angeles, thanks to superb production design by K.K. Barrett and cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, is both attractive and permeated with quiet melancholy and works marvelously in tandem with Jonze’s optimistic yet pragmatic view of technology’s potential.
Yet what of the heart of this film, the relationship between Theodore and Samantha? On the surface, Samantha very well could have been a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or in other words a character designed solely to make the male protagonist a more fulfilled person. Yet Samantha is her own character with an arc that, while closely tied to Theodore, by no means revolves around him. It would be a disservice to both her character and the actress who voices her if her happiness rested solely upon Theodore’s well-being, yet Jonze is smart enough to know this isn’t how relationships should or do work. There’s a genuinely inspired scene where Samantha hires a human surrogate to have sex with Theodore while she speaks in his earpiece in an attempt to give the illusion to Theodore, and most of all to herself, that she has a physical body. Of course this ends disastrously, though we laugh in sympathy for our lovers and not in self-righteous scorn. Theodore learns an important lesson from this incident, but we quickly learn that it is Samantha who gains even more than he does.
This is still all so very unusual, and I know that Her won’t be for everybody. The satirists in the audience will demand a more biting film while the hardcore science-fiction aficionados will perhaps expect less sentiment in the portrayal of these machines. Yet those who do respond to this film will find so much to cherish. Jonze has always shown in his work, from Adaptation. to Where the Wild Things Are, a knack for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and vice versa. With Her, he’s shown that he completely understands how intricately connected love and loss truly are, how loving another person can constitute of little more than our heightened perspective, and ultimately just how much there is still to gain from loving someone else. “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel,” Theodore confides in Amy. “And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” With that, Jonze encapsulates not only our fears of an uncertain future but the universal despair and grief that can overwhelm and inhibit us in the haze of raw heartbreak. How wonderful it is for Theodore, and for us, that he couldn’t be more wrong.