Note: I don't do a whole lot of summary or plot set up here—or much of any of the standard “review” conventions—because what set up you do need is given in the trailer, and revealing specifics of anything past that would spoil a lot of the most creative moments of the experience. I'm not trying to suggest whether or not to see the film, because Her is a Spike Jonze movie about a man (named Theodore Twombly) in the near future, sad and alone following a divorce, who falls in love with his operating system—based on that you're either going to see it or you're not.
At times—many times during the first half—Her plays like it may be sly conceptual art. There are scenes where it is entirely possible, and with the scripted dialogue even likely, that this was a movie filmed as a standard romantic comedy, with the female character removed in post production and replaced with a phone or computer. The film doesn't treat any of these scenes as farcical or absurd—by the midpoint Joaquin Phoenix can can have an emotional, face-to-face discussion with his phone on the steps in a public park, and no one looks at him like a weirdo.
There is a sweet, quirky—and thus nearly insane considering the circumstances—level of joy in scenes where, phone pinned carefully to his front pocket with the camera facing outward, he and Samantha (the name the operating system gives itself) run around on the boardwalk, order food from a street vendor, and walk and talk through the night. In one later scene, Samantha casually remarks “I realized I was kind of hurt by something you said the other day,” and the two work out the tension in a conversation on a train. All of these scenes are played completely straight, written in such a way that Scarlett Johansson could be digitally inserted into the frame mouthing her lines and nothing would seem amiss.
This brings up an element of the film that I wasn't expecting, and one that was a bit off-putting for me at first.
Jonze Assumes a Future We May Be (Uncomfortably) Very Close To
We're introduced to a world that looks and feels a lot like our own if everything was filtered through a hipster-pioneered retro chic—it's like the future has arrived, and it's just our present in Hipstamatic prints. One of the great, subtle successes of the film is how convincingly it proposes slight changes in style (a kind of nerdy retro look to the clothing) and technology (motion-controlled video games displayed via 3D projection) that seem futuristic only when taken all together in large doses for an extended period.
And yet, when it's introduced, Samantha, the innovative new operating system that will become Phoenix's love interest, is already absurdly human-like. Nothing about it can really serve as a reference point to even the most advanced AI an audience member may be familiar with—which is what, Siri?— so it sticks out as a product of a distant fictional future, being interacted with in a near-future we feel familiar with. I knew the arc we were getting into would examine how an AI system could come to approximate human feelings, but I also expected a learning curve.
Samantha doesn't just replicate human speech patterns and emotional tones—from the very first time Twombly “boots her up,” she exhibits a full and nuanced range of logic, conversation ability, and cognitive understanding. At no point can we believe that this is a computer program that will evolve and “learn,” because it seems to be more or less human from the start. This seems little more surprising to Twombly than the improved clarity of Blu-Ray or the compact nature of the first iPod Nano seemed at those respective touchstones in our current times—and that is completely bizarre.
Add to this the fact that Phoenix plays Twombly as a man who is likely a kind, emotionally damaged introvert coping slowly with loss, but could be lapsing into delusion mid-meltdown right before our eyes, and the scenes between him and Samantha take on a dissonant quality. We're not sure how we're meant to interpret them. Is this a man who needs a human connection to fill the void left by his failed relationship, and who is so afraid of being hurt again that he leaps headlong into a safe illusion he can control? Or are we supposed to view the relationship as real to him, allowing Samantha to act as a genuine character with agency of her own?
Furthermore, it's just a movie, so why was it so hard to suspend my disbelief and accept the fantasy of an intelligent, involved AI without a more crude, basic and robotic starting point? Why are the moments when Twombly and Samantha interact like a normal human relationship so hard to handle without something explicitly pointing to the absurdity of their situation?
That Moment When You Realize You're No Longer Part of the Youngest Generation
I'm almost 30, so maybe this realization came late, but goddamn. Let's consider one of the above sentences again: “by the midpoint Joaquin Phoenix can can have an emotional, face-to-face discussion with his phone on the steps in a public park, and no one looks at him like a weirdo.” Right after typing that I realized, this isn't actually weird at all—this would have been weird, if we were living in the early 2000s and Bluetooth was still a rare enough thing that it could provide a latent value of making respectable businessmen seem totally crazy as they strolled down the street talking to no one. It's weird to us as we watch the movie because we know he's talking to a computer and not a person, but from the outside, without this omniscience granted by the film, the behavior is objectively normal.
Then I left my sentence alone, thinking, “Yes but he's talking to his phone, holding it up in front of him so they can speak 'face-to-face.'” HOWEVER, this isn't weird per se, because there may actually be people out there right now who use Apple's Face Time (or some equally awkward and inconvenient function that would have appealed to me far more when I was 6 and wanted to play Dick Tracy), and this is exactly how they would look while using it.
Twombly's interactions with Samantha are so weird because the behavior only becomes abnormal in light of the film's omniscient viewpoint, and yet the film itself does nothing to indicate that this is the case. It seems weird because the more expected route would be to contrast the fullness and “reality” of human interactions with the one-sided and shallow nature of our interactions with technology. But this isn't what director Spike Jonze is doing, and that's where things get weird.
A Sentimental Statement About Our Awful Times
The film is visionary in its small details from the very beginning—the style and technology quirks I already mentioned—but there is also some increasingly bold social criticism that enters the equation as we get further and further into the story. One of the first scenes shows Twombly at his job at a letter-writing company—literally a company where you can hire someone else to ghost-write your own letters to family and loved ones. He remarks at one point about his familiarity with a couple he's never met, explaining that “he's been writing their letters for them since they were kids.”
This is an interesting inverse of the way our current social media landscape affords everyone the ability to put selective pieces of their own life on display for anyone to see. Twombly isn't exactly talking about following a friend's life in your newsfeed or tracking down a high-school acquaintance to see what they're up to, but the fact that this is a career in the world of Her illustrates a logical evolution of our comfort with putting intimate details of our lives in the hands of strangers. What's more, he seems to have a sentimental connection with the people “his” letters are to and from. He feels like a part of their lives even though he has never encountered them in any real capacity—and he has shaped their lives with each other by influencing and building the mythology of their relationship.
In a way, the couple's relationship is just as one-sided as we'd expect Twombly's to be with a computer, because the two participants are only engaging in an illusion of communication. Society's attitude toward this style of communication—and eventually toward the type of relationship Twombly has with Samantha, though I won't spoil exactly how—is revealed in the movie to be surprisingly accepting.
And this is where the movie is either doing something subtly subversive or terrifyingly earnest. The final scenes unfold in a way that is both expected and unsettling at the same time—leaving the audience on a life-affirming uplift that follows the same standard relationship structure I already mentioned. Except it never addresses the fact that there is only ever one person in this relationship. Jonze is either trying to be satirical by showing how ridiculous it is that people could have genuine, “legitimate” relationships with technology (i.e. – “beings” of our own creation), or demonstrating unintentionally how comfortable we truly are with alternate representations of reality we've constructed for ourselves.
If Twombly is delusional (along with a few other characters), then the sentimental techniques employed by the ending are kind of viciously ironic. If not though—if Jonze really is telling what he intends to be a sweet story about human experience (and I think he is)—then the implication of the film is that the only important part of our experiences are how they affect us. If this is the case, then the movie is saying that other people could literally be objects we use as reference points when building up the mythologies of our own lives, and then sentimentally suggesting that this is totally acceptable.
None of this is malicious, and Jonze wraps up the movie on a nicely bittersweet note for the surface narrative, but underneath all of that we must be at a point in our culture so comfortable with our own narcissism in order to accept the arc of the movie as such. It is, to genuinely employ an overused expression, a film for our times—and that is profoundly disturbing.
Directed by Spike Jonze.
Screenplay written by Spike Jonze.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, and Scarlett Johansson.