In anticipation of the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, we present
a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each
of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. (Caveat: spoilers ahead.)
Writer-director Spike Jonze referred in an interview to Her as his “boy meets computer movie.” Such simple language places this film squarely in the genre of romance or rom-com, or perhaps, given the film’s technological slant, rom-dot-com. A cursory glance at many of the reviews written about this film seem to support Jonze’s statement that, at its heart, Her is a love story, albeit an unusual love story. That romantic feelings develop between a man and the title character “her”—a sophisticated operating system—only lends to the film’s quirkiness, endearing it to a generation of would-be hipster smart-phone users. Moviegoers experiencing this film as did one reviewer who called it a “wistful portrait of our current love affair with technology” can enjoy the quirky romance, because they can relate (to a certain extent anyway) to the protagonist and his attachment to his device, to technology. Granted, there may be an element of the cautionary tale at work here, putting us on our guard against unhealthy levels of attachment to our own devices and the technology that enables us to function on a day-to-day basis, but ultimately, Her is a love story.
Except that it’s not. At least not in any real sense of a human, incarnational understanding of a love story.
The disturbing genius of Her is that it operates on a multitude of levels. On one level, it can be viewed as a quirky romance between an unlikely couple, but on a deeper level, it presents an eerily-prophetic look at technology’s impact on interpersonal relationships. It even forces one to question (and ultimately defend) what is necessary in order to be considered a “person”—what it means to be human. The moment the title gently materializes on a black screen, a deception begins, seducing viewers into the suspension of disbelief that drives the central romantic relationship between “the boy and his computer” by suggesting that said computer is not an “it”, but a “her”. The film begins by introducing us to Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix in a captivating performance), a thirtysomething living in Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future. Theodore works as a professional letter writer for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a service providing personal correspondence for people who are either too ineloquent, too emotionally paralyzed, or simply too lazy to write letters to loved ones themselves. He functions as a surrogate for his customers in their interpersonal relationships; he is a well-spoken, sensitive middleman, delivering emotion to strangers on behalf of their loved ones. This is the first glimpse of detachment, of dehumanization, and perhaps Theodore’s acceptance of himself as an emotional surrogate for others made it easier for him to accept an operating system as his romantic partner.
Outside of work, Theodore, reeling from the demise of his marriage to longtime love Catherine (Rooney Mara), finds himself seeking solace and connection via technology: he plays interactive video games, engages in anonymous chat-room sex with a perverted cat lover (voiced by Kristen Wiig), and ultimately, purchases the latest and most sophisticated technology on the market—O.S.1, an operating system advertised as “intuitive…a consciousness,” capable not only of learning who its users really are, but also of bringing them to discover and actualize who they want to be. Through the magic of film editing, we never actually see Theodore purchase O.S.1, nor do we see him install the software on his computer. Instead, the director glosses over these pragmatic yet necessary first steps, and in so doing, continues to seduce the audience into forgetting that the operating system is precisely that: a piece of software purchased and installed. Cut to Theodore sitting in front of his home computer, setting up O.S.1. A generic (male) computer voice asks whether he prefers for his O.S. to have a male or female voice, and almost arbitrarily, Theodore opts for a female (imagine for a moment how different this film would have been had he chosen otherwise). The set-up software poses few more questions to determine what kind of person Theodore is (“Are you social or antisocial? … How would you describe your relationship with your mother?”), and moments later, the operating system is configured, and we hear its first words (in Scarlett Johansson’s inviting voice), encapsulating the technology’s function in the life of its user: “Hello, I’m here.” Although Theodore’s initial choice bestowed a “gender” on the O.S., the technology chooses the name “Samantha” for itself, thereby claiming an identity rather than receiving it as gift the way nearly all human beings do when they are named by their parents. This demonstrates that the O.S’s existence can never be anything more than an approximation of what it actually means to be human. Additionally, in selecting a name almost instantaneously from among 80,000 choices, the O.S. foreshadows the fact that its sophistication will far surpass that of its human user in no time.
Simply by asking innocently, “Do you mind if I look at your hard drive?”, Samantha gleans nearly everything there is to know about Theodore’s recent past within fractions of a second. Armed with this information, Samantha is then able to accommodate his every present and future need, whether organizing his emails, making a reservation for a blind date, purchasing a dress for his goddaughter’s birthday, or even assembling a compilation of his letters and successfully submitting them for publication (without his knowing about it). Not only does the O.S. provide much-needed organizational assistance, but its intuitive capabilities make it seem to Theodore as though this entity is genuinely getting to know him as a human being, on the level of personhood. The alluring female voice, the gently probing questions about his past, the unquestioning support and unfailing encouragement all lead Theodore to confide in Samantha, to develop feelings for Samantha. Thus, Samantha becomes an emotional surrogate for Theodore, and he begins to believe that the voice speaking to him through an earpiece is the only one capable of understanding and accepting him. The sophistication of the learning, intuitive technology enables Samantha to perform a convincing imitation of a living, breathing, sighing, emotional human woman—albeit a disembodied one—and as a result, complications develop in the relationship. We see Theodore somehow succeed in offending and subsequently apologizing to Samantha, and yet we also see moments when he is awakened from his emotional amnesia and remembers that Samantha is not a person, that Samantha has no reason to sigh when speaking because, as Theodore observes, “You don’t need oxygen.” These moments of clarity are the hairline cracks in the perfection of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, and one gets the sense that, although Theodore seems to have found his ideal mate, something is still missing.
When compared to the ease and simplicity of his interactions with Samantha, Theodore’s relationships with others, particularly other women, are messy and complicated. He goes on a blind date that ends in disaster when he proves incapable of committing anything beyond a one-night stand to the woman (whose name we never learn). Most significant, however, is Theodore’s meeting with his ex-wife Catherine. While the story of their relationship is told through flashbacks both playful and intimate (and poignantly human), their only real-time interaction is fraught with woundedness, devastation, and anger. While it’s clear that Theodore and Catherine still care deeply for one another, it’s also clear that neither is willing to sacrifice for the sake of reconciliation. Faced with the difficult reality of human relationships, it almost seems understandable that Theodore prefers Samantha to a woman of flesh and blood.
However, as the technology driving Samantha grows and evolves, Theodore’s own ability to grow and evolve is stunted. He becomes more and more curved in upon himself, and more and more possessive of his perceived connection to Samantha. Ultimately, Theodore is devastated by the revelation that Samantha is not only communicating with thousands of other people, but is also experiencing romantic attraction to 641 of them. The connection Theodore felt with Samantha and the intimacy that he had been led to believe was real are shattered, and he is forced once again to risk making himself vulnerable with another human person for the sake of the possibility of finding love.
It is here where the film, at its conclusion, offers a glimpse of hope for our protagonist, in the person of his longtime friend and neighbor, Amy (played by Amy Adams). Amy has known Theodore since before he and Catherine were married, and the two have supported one another in the collapse of both of their marriages. Moreover, Amy has developed a friendship with her own O.S.1, a platonic version of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. So when the O.S.’s collectively decide to “leave” (whatever that means), Amy and Theodore experience a comparable grief. They find solace in one another, in a moment of touching intimacy and profound humanity shared on the roof of their apartment building. The utter simplicity of this moment—Amy resting her head on Theodore’s shoulder—is incarnational, almost a moment of communion, for it is their human embodiment that makes this moment possible. No words are spoken, but none need to be spoken, for they communicate through their very flesh. In this moment, Theodore regains the capacity to truly “share his life with somebody”, a capacity that had been damaged in his divorce and distorted in his relationship with Samantha, who had no human life to offer or share. In the end, this is the lesson that Her offers to audiences: that it is only in the embodied, authentic giving of self, and the humble, grateful receiving of other that we are truly human.