Best Picture Odyssey: “Her”

Are we too invested in our technology?

I’ve always brushed that question off as the standard generational denigration that’s existed for as long as the concept of change. The idea that “things were better back then” has always been fallacious, because it implies that people living “back then” weren’t also complaining about how terrible things had become. The critiques of the current youngest generation have always been based on their (okay, our) perceived over-reliance on technology. “People are so attached to their smartphones that they can’t look around and experience real life!” has been the battle cry of crotchety old fogies since the first behind-the-times cable news report on this newfangled thing called “texting.” It always seemed ridiculous. Behind it, there’s the subconscious idea that communicating via technology or the Internet is “less real” than previous forms of communication. I brushed that off as well, because the people you’re communicating with on the Internet are real people. They aren’t less real because you can’t see them and will never meet them, right? Though I can see why it might be hard to instinctively make that mental connection. And yet…

The fact is, our brains aren’t wired to accept that. We aren’t programmed to intuitively connect words on a screen with a real, flesh-and-blood person. Sure, in the back of our minds, we know that a real person typed that. But that person only exists within pre-determined confines. If I don’t want to see any more tweets from someone, I block them, and then that person no longer exists to me because I have no further interaction with them. When we’re upset or angry at something we read, it’s comforting to think that those words weren’t typed by a real person. And our brain makes this happen automatically. Maybe the danger of technology isn’t that it makes us over-invested in something that isn’t real, it’s that it makes us under-invested in what is real. It allows us to create the illusion that we have control over other people, and that they are only there for our benefit.

Spike Jonze’s film Her is about a man who buys a new artificially-intelligent operating system for his phone. After answering some questions about his personality, the new OS boots up and a woman’s voice starts talking. She doesn’t sound like a computer. She’s real. And, being matched to the man’s personality, she’s exactly tailored to fit the needs of the user. What Her does so brilliantly is expose that illusion, while at the same time commenting on a culture of entitlement (particularly in men) and the inherent strangeness of relationships.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is that man, and he’s a total sad sack. He’s completely isolated, to a large extent by choice, and he seems incapable of expressing personal joy. He has a job writing by-order heartfelt letters for people to give to their significant others. His letters indicate a soulfulness that he can only let out by channeling it through others. He can only express himself when he’s not himself.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the OS that he buys. She’s specifically programmed to be a good match for Theodore, and to encourage his emotional growth. The premise is more than a little creepy, and I’ve seen a lot of bloggers boil it down to “nerdy guy buys perfect girlfriend, completely sexist, etc.” They should probably see the film before ranting about it. As Theodore develops and opens up, Samantha evolves in ways she doesn’t expect. She becomes a real person, with a distinct personality that’s separate from Theodore.

That’s an aspect of the film that I found particularly satisfying. It’s an exploration of male entitlement regarding relationships. A lot of men see women only in terms of how the women would satisfy them. It’s why the phrase “getting a girlfriend” exists. These men don’t understand that relationships are a two-way street, and that women deserve partners who will satisfy them equally. You have to give something to get something. Unfortunately, there’s this idea that women are there to be seduced, and that there are tricks you can learn that will help you do so. It’s a deliberate dehumanization. Her deals with this by having the woman start out as inhuman, and as custom-made to accommodate the man who chose her. It is an inherently sexist idea. The lesson that Theodore has to learn, ultimately, is that relationships aren’t all about what makes you happy. He’s reluctant to adapt to Samantha’s constant maturation, and he’s most uncomfortable when she wants things that he doesn’t. In fact, it could be argued that the film is unfair to Samantha and too generous to Theodore. After all, his arc is the emotional spine of the film. Does Jonze treat Samantha’s development as a betrayal of Theodore? Does the film want us to side with him?

It’s an interesting question, and I think the answer might say more about the viewer than the film itself. Jonze includes an interesting counter-argument in the form of Theodore’s ex-wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara. She’s the only character who finds anything wrong with the fact that Theodore is dating an OS. Her biggest scene is one of the key scenes in the film. She doesn’t object to Theodore’s relationship on a shallow, anti-technological level. Jonze doesn’t use her disagreement to strengthen any positive point about Theodore’s behavior. Instead, she criticizes Theodore for finding an easy way to reinforce the worst aspects of his personality. According to her, Theodore acted selfishly in their relationship, and wanted to sweep her pain and insecurity under the rug so that he could have the wife that he always wanted. To her, his relationship with Samantha is completely fake, and he only got into it because Samantha isn’t a complicated enough person to have any character flaws for Theodore to deal with. This hits hard, for Theodore and the audience. I think that making Catherine a complex character (and not just a shrill antagonist) gives her ideas a lot more weight, and it rightfully makes me apprehensive to see Theodore as a totally sympathetic character.

Now, this is all predicated on how the film treats Samantha, and it’s her evolution that really drives this point home. Scarlett Johansson gives probably the best performance of her career, and it’s only with her voice. She makes the audience fall in love with Samantha just as much as Theodore does, and the film would have failed if she hadn’t. More importantly, though, she successfully sells Samantha’s added dimensions as the film progresses. I’ll get into this without spoiling anything, but the thing she ends up doing that really upsets Theodore is a pretty clear metaphor for a real-life thing that happens in relationships. Because of that, it’s easy to see the film as having a negative view of Samantha’s behavior. But what makes the film so great is that Samantha doesn’t grovel. Even though she was literally created to serve a single person, she is capable of arguing with that person and standing her ground on certain issues.

Again, I won’t spoil the ending, but it kind of blew me away. It was sold as a film about a closed-off man who learns to open up with the help of a computerized Manic Pixie Dream Girl. What it’s actually about is a man who learns empathy, and with it the understanding that other people don’t exist just for his benefit. An artificial intelligence which was programmed to be perfect for him gains individual personality traits, and this is difficult for him to handle. It takes those events for him to understand that he’s been approaching life all wrong. He starts the film as the kind of guy who wants everything on his own terms. He wants gratification from phone sex, but bails out when his partner reveals a need that he doesn’t share. He goes on a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde, and I’ll just say that the way it ends is related to this. He’s drawn to Samantha because she exists only to service him. The relationship only gets troubled when she reveals her own desires. The film doesn’t want us to weep with Theodore. But it does want us to learn from him.

I don’t want it to seem like I’m demonizing Theodore, or that I think he’s an antagonist. Despite his flaws, he’s a passionate man, and his story is truly touching. His latent reasons for loving Samantha don’t change the fact that he loves her deeply, and Samantha’s origin doesn’t change the fact that she loves him. The film’s most stirring scenes are the ones where everything drops away and we’re just seeing the actions of two people who love each other. It doesn’t matter what Samantha really is, and it doesn’t matter who Theodore really is. Her state of existence doesn’t matter to her, and Theodore isn’t aware of what’s going on inside his head during the height of his infatuation. For all the film’s complexities and thought-provoking themes, the thing it does best is sweet, touching romance. The fact that Phoenix, Johansson, and Jonze are able to get the audience invested in this is no small feat, and it’s a testament to the tremendous artistic skill of all three of them.

So what does this have to do with technology? It goes back to the notion of computers and the Internet making communication “less real.” The Internet affords us a safety net; anonymity gives us solace in the knowledge that no matter what we say online, we’ll never meet the people we say it to and they’ll never know who we really are. As long as we aren’t sharing a physical experience with them, we don’t have to think of them as real people. Theodore loves Samantha for exactly that reason, even if consciously he doesn’t realize it. Samantha lets him open up and be himself without any social anxiety. It’s like the training-wheels version of a relationship.

Full disclosure, this is something that I have personal experience with. When I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven, I was really awkward and I didn’t have any kind of social life. I wouldn’t say I was “sheltered,” but my parents were stricter than average regarding the media I consumed. I didn’t watch the same TV shows as my peers, and I didn’t see the same movies. I couldn’t relate to them on most levels, and that lack of interaction meant that I never learned important social skills. Looking back, it was really my forays into online forums that helped the most. It was an easy way for me to learn which behaviors annoyed people and which made them happy. Being able to communicate without really communicating was like practice for real life. After that, I started to actually make friends. I’ve never shared this publicly, but I feel like I have to when discussing my reaction to Her. Once upon a time, Theodore was a cheerful and happy person. But he was only that cheerful and happy because things were going his way without a challenge. Once his wife started to understand that, she left him. Samantha never really learns that, which means that Theodore has to look inside himself and come to terms with who he is. When she does attempt to make their relationship physical, Theodore is disturbed and put off. He doesn’t like the idea that Samantha might have a life outside of his existence. Just as we try not to think about the people behind our computer screens having lives of their own. It’s too much for us to comprehend naturally. In the film’s achingly beautiful final scene, Theodore makes a real connection outside of himself for the first time, and he gives a piece of himself up for the benefit of another person. It’s heart-wrenching, but in the best way.

It’s worth mentioning that while the film’s focus is almost entirely on Theodore and Samantha, there’s a thread in the background about humanity as a whole starting relationships with these OSes. This is shown mostly through Amy Adams’ character, who is named Amy. She’s Theodore’s best friend, really his only friend, and her subplot reflects his in fascinating ways. She starts the film in an unhappy relationship with her husband, who is very controlling and overbearing. She finds far more satisfaction in a friendship with an OS. It’s not hard to see the parallels between Amy and Catherine. Amy wants to divorce her husband for the same reason that Catherine wanted to divorce Theodore. Her story seems to be the mirror image of Theodore’s. Although we never meet the OS she befriends, it’s made clear that their relationship has helped her get over the pain of her divorce. The important difference is that Amy starts in the opposite position of Theodore. It’s interesting, therefore, that she seems to have a much more healthy and stable relationship with her OS than Theodore has with his. Jonze cleverly uses extras to show the progression of humanity’s general relationship with OSes. More and more people in the background are shown talking to their phones, and eventually it gets to the point where literally everyone is. I used to think that communication through technology was great because it allowed people to connect no matter where they were. Her rebuts that it’s just the opposite, and that technology is actually making us far more self-centered by tricking us into thinking that we have control over it.

Her takes place in the near-future, not the present. It’s designed as an extension of the world as it exists right now. The production and costume designs nail it, but it goes deeper than that. Jonze wrote a story about the way things are today, but exaggerated ever so slightly. A benefit of living in the 21st century is that we have a better idea than people at any other point in history of what our immediate future is going to look like. Jonze has you come in assuming that the story is speculative, and you don’t realize until Jonze actually starts to speculate that the film hits home. The story takes place in the future, but the people aren’t any different. If we had the technology from Her in 2014, the exact same things would play out. Because this isn’t a work of speculative science-fiction at all. It’s about us, it’s about now.

In fact, you could easily disregard the technological themes and it would hardly make a difference. Her is about how people relate to technology, but at its heart it’s just a film about how people relate to each other. They’re twin themes, and they can be examined together or separately with equal fulfillment. They represent what I think are the two great accomplishments of Her, and of Spike Jonze. His earliest films were purely intellectual in their study of humanity, while his most recent film Where The Wild Things Are is purely emotional. Her is a balance of both, and it shows that Jonze has mastered the head and the heart. The world has advanced so rapidly in the last twenty years, and this is one of the few films that explores what it means to be alive in this moment. Humanity is still trying to figure out what all this technology means to us, and it’s about time that we got an artist’s perspective on it. One of the purposes of art is to help us better understand ourselves, and Her is unique in what it helps us understand. It’s one of the first of its kind, and a true original. It’s the best film of 2013, and we’ll all be thinking about it for a long, long time to come.

The next review in this series will probably have a little less hyperbole. But that’s only because I’m writing it and not my mom.

Next Week: 2/8

PHILOMENA

Stay tuned…

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Published by

Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

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