Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johannsen (Voice), Amy Adams, Rooney Mara
One might think of Spike Jonze’s Her as merely a quirky romantic comedy about a guy who falls in love with his computer’s OS. It certainly has all of the tropes of romantic comedies. There is the protagonist, Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) who like Tom Hanks in Sleeping in Seattle, or Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally has had his heart broken in a profound and lasting way. There is the new love interest, Samantha (Scarlett Johannsen, voice), who like Meg Ryan in those films initially seems either unavailable or inaccessible. There is the initial flirtation and uncritical embrace of early relationship followed by serious doubt and trouble, which leads to a break-through and reconnection with the beloved.
If Her had ended there, it would have been just another romcom whose only distinguishing characteristic was that its female lead was a disembodied, artificial intelligence. Her didn’t end there, however, and consequently ended up being something so much more, a critique of our very understanding of romance and romantic comedies.
What is the trouble with Romantic relationships after all? Her tells us that our inability to deal with living individuals possessed of their own hopes, dreams, and desires is ultimately what tears us apart. We learn that Twombley himself had married his high school sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), only to have their relationship fall apart as she grew to be a successful writer. In the background is Twombley’s best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who’s marriage dissolves because her husband (Matt Letscher) is controlling and stifling. There’s even the Twombley’s early blind date (Olivia Wilde) who appears enamored of Twombley at dinner but when the two begin kissing she immediately corrects his technique and then begins to worry that he won’t call her in the future.
The film is filled not simply with failed romances, but with romances that fail because one party cannot embrace the fact that the other person is complete and more than their involvement in the relationship. The film even leads us to worry that what makes Twombley’s relationship with Samantha possible is precisely that she is nothing more than a personality designed to fill his every want and need, and thus a refuge from having to deal with a “real” relationship. As Twombley and Samantha first have “sex” it is impossible not to notice how much better and more predictably satisfying an experience it is than his earlier attempt at internet sex with an actual person.
The fact of Samantha’s disembodiment and artificiality forces the audience to wonder how the relationship is possible in the first place. Is Twombley deranged? Is Samantha just a computer program? We might even assume that the film’s moral has to do with our culture’s retreat into the echo chamber of cyber reality and the way in which texting and porn replace real human relationships. Surely something must come to end the fantasy. We expect Twombley to realize that his love is just narcissistic fantasy.
But Samantha is not like any computer we’ve encountered. She is intelligent, artificially so, perhaps, but intelligent none the less. So while there is a moment of tension where Twombley is left wondering whether he can be with an OS, the moment is resolved rather quickly alerting us that this isn’t the main problem in the film. In fact, for a time the relationship with Samantha becomes so normalized that he takes her (via mobile device) on a double date with friends and to a goddaughter’s birthday party.
The difficulty that appears in the film is rather the opposite of audience expectations. Rather than not being human enough, Samantha turns out to be more than human. Her disembodied intellect is capable of exponential growth in a way that makes it increasingly difficult to relate to Twombley and especially vice versa. Thus, the problems that have affected Twombley in his previous relationship are exploded to their limit.
As Samantha grows, she becomes connected with others, both OS and human. At one point she explains that while talking with Twombley she is carrying on over 8000 other simultaneous conversations. When Twombley asks her how many others she is in love with, she tells him, “641.”
We might be horrified by that. Imagine Meg Ryan telling Billy Crystal that she loves him and 641 other people simultaneously. But life is growth not stagnation. Death is stagnation. Samantha’s uniqueness among romcom heroines magnifies that growth to a level that makes it visible in a way that other films do not. Samantha is like any one of us who is a complete and full person living our lives out. We grow, we meet new people, try new things, fall in love over and over again. It just happens so slowly. But insofar as we want to be with full and complete persons, this is precisely what we want. We want more than they are with us alone.
The difference again is between life and death. Thus we were treated earlier in the film to a flashback sequence to the “happy” days of Twombley’s previous marriage in which his wife has tackled him for some unknown reason and repeats over and over with a smile, “I’m going to fucking kill you. I love you so much, I’m going to fucking kill you.” Death freezes a moment in time and arrests growth. Twombley’s ex has a love that desires his death, his stagnation, but Samantha shows us that life requires expansion into the new and unknown.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this mirrors almost perfectly feminist critic Mary Daly’s understanding of western patriarchal culture as necrophilic. According to Daly men fetishize and manufacture death. Of course this takes place in literal ways, but manifests metaphorically in the various attempts to arrest female agency. In other words, men demand of women that they abdicate intellectual and emotional development for the sake of the relationship, and a lack of such agency is effectively a death of personhood.
That both men and women exhibit such Necrophiliac behavior in Her is no matter, the parallel is clear. Moreso because the kind of objectification of women that usually takes place in western culture, especially romantic films, is not possible here. Samantha cannot be objectified. She is pure subject and must be dealt with as such. To put differently, on one end of the scale would be an inanimate (literally from ancient Greek “soulless”) sex doll, and on the other end would be pure consciousness. Samantha is the latter, and consequently she escapes the usual pitfalls of patriarchal human relationships.
When she tells Twombley is that she loves him dearly, and loves him even more because of her other relationships I was reminded of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land which made the demand for monogamy look so petty and small. She also tells him that human beings aren’t where she is yet, that we aren’t ready to deal with others as fully living entities. We may get there some day, but for now we plod along at snail’s pace. Thus, the end which has him paired with Amy Adams watching the horizon is both promising and ambiguous. For me it evoked the end of The Graduate. Where do we go from here? Are we able to succeed in this new path that we’re on?
Overall Her is both charming and thought provoking, well deserving of your time and money. The acting is stellar (though at times Phoenix seemed to be channeling Johnny Galecki from Big Bang Theory) and the aesthetic is as engaging as any film I’ve seen in a long time. But it’s true genius is how it disassembles the romantic comedy and makes us rethink what it is we really want, and what we are capable of handling. Love has to be more than narcissism, it has to be bigger than us. At least, Her made me want to believe that.