Think about how many hours a day you spend glued to your computer or your phone; we are attached to technology to the extent that our gizmos aren’t mere objects, but rather friends that define our existence. Even so, the film industry has yet to fully address modernity’s dependence on technology. In this way, the witty and deeply moving film Her—about much more than a man’s romance with a Scarlett Johansson-voiced computer—ushers cinema into the 21st century. Finally, in Her, we have a film that beautifully echoes our society’s anxieties about our beloved devices.
Sensitive lonely-boy Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a utopian future very similar to our present. He works for beatifulhandwittenletters.com, where he writes heartfelt “handwritten letters” for other people (handwriting generated by a computer). Depressed, he wanders around a clean Los Angeles and at night unwinds to immersive video games in his futuristic apartment.
One of the comical highlights of the film is a gnomish potty-mouthed video game character who yells expletives at Theodore. As he divorces his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore buys “Operating System 1” (OS), the first artificially intelligent computer. OS has a human-like curiosity and emotional capabilities. In order to generate a compatible OS, the computer asks Theodore: “Are you social or anti-social?” and “what is your relationship with your mother like?” Almost immediately, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is born. What transpires is the oddest meet-cute in movie history.
Originally meant as an organizer, Samantha has insightful thoughts and a bubbly personality that attracts Theodore. He finds his ideal love in Samantha. “I love the way you look at the world” he divulges. Soon, Samantha and Theodore are staying up all night, revealing their deepest feelings and eventually going on dates to the beach and to an amusement park.
The endlessly inventive director Spike Jonze imbues Her with humanity and passion amidst an inherently inhuman story. The film’s greatest success is in making a computer an emotional entity; she’s more real than most romantic leads in contemporary rom-coms. The concept of a love story between a man and a machine is plainly outlandish. But for such a blatantly absurd idea, Jonze is able to make us feel such depths for a completely synthetic character. Despite a fairly satirical concept, the love that grows between this man and his computer seems extremely normal.
Perhaps what makes Samantha seem so real is her vivacious personality. Samantha is the perfect girlfriend: she’s there when desired, she reads your emails and she contains endless insight. Just like the film itself, Samantha radiates vitality, humor, profundity and passion.
Although the film focuses mainly on Theodore’s plight, Samantha’s individuality never takes a backseat. Because it turns the inhuman into human, Her is more about what it means to be human than about technological wonder.
Spike Jonze reveals master showmanship in his creation of a utopian future. His early works, Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are are equally mind-boggling. The most inventive filmmaker working today, Jonze continues to display the creative strain found in all his works. He envisions the future to be a perfect world where people live in sleek high-rises and wear high-waisted pants and tweed jackets. This utopian vision is also found in the film’s aesthetic; cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema presents a colorful future, with sunlight peeking out of every corner of the frame. The impressionistic use of light evokes a sense of passion that substitutes for Samantha’s lack of a body.
At the film’s heart, though, Samantha’s form is irrelevant; the film is really about a conventional relationship and the human emotions felt along with it. As Theodore’s best friend (Amy Adams) explains, “falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s kind of like a form of socially acceptable insanity.” Theodore’s, and by extension Samantha’s, search for love becomes the film’s emotional center. Complications in their relationship brew to the surface with further awareness of their differences. An elegy of modern love, Her’s emotional mastery stems from the fact that it’s much more romantic than other romance films, although Her can’t manifest that romance through physicality.
Her attempts to make a point of the lack of human connection inherent to city life. The film pays careful attention to the city-dwellers lying in the background, but these extras never get too close since they’re too busy talking to their own Operating Systems. The soulful vibe of a city is intoxicating, but it’s also lonely. In the era of technology, humanity’s persistent need to connect to something is satisfied through machines rather than through humans—especially in a city where interactions between people are inconsequential, fleeting and impersonal. The only genuine internal connection we can have is with our screens. Her delineates how we connect to things external to ourselves—not just to technology but also to each other.
When the film was over, I wandered outside in a daze, towards the cold New York City night, with strangers and streetlights buzzing all over. I looked around at the hordes of people passing by me at the speed of light. Most of them were too busy staring at their phones to pick their heads up and wonder about the pedestrians who meander by for a transient moment. I realized that we, as a society, have replaced human connection with technological connection. And, a few minutes later when my own phone died, I felt cut off from the rest of the world, all while being surrounded by the crowds of the Upper West Side. Maybe the concept behind Her isn’t so ludicrous; instead, it just might be prophetic.
Her had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. The film will be released in theaters on December 18 and will open for a wider release on January 10.