THE PROSPECT of an unfulfilling relationship is scary. So is being alone. But the prospect of real love is the scariest of all. Getting involved with love means coming to terms with who you are and who you aren’t. It means coming to terms with whom you want and whom you don’t. It means closing doors, taking responsibility for your own desires and needs, and becoming vulnerable to potential loss. It means immense joy, too, of course. But where there’s joy, there’s the possibility of pain. The door to feeling opens indiscriminately.
Spike Jonze’s new movie Her follows everyman Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he charts the course of just such a fraught developmental journey. The aesthetic of the film, set in Los Angeles in the not-too-distant future, encourages us to think in terms of nuance and gradients — of the what-has-been gradually giving way to the what-will-be. The fashion and décor blend new and retro, tech and nature, sleek and sumptuous. Computers are encased in wood. Buildings’ glossy exteriors (the skylines were shot in Shanghai) contain interiors that blossom with color. The clothes are all soft tweeds and cottons; out of those pockets peek shiny devices.
We meet Theodore when he’s despondent and detached, following the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara). Lying awake in bed in an early scene, he sticks in an earbud, remotely connected to his smartphone-like device, and operable by voice. In a chat room, he aurally scrolls through options before settling on a woman with a sweet voice who can’t fall asleep. They move quickly toward phone, or cyber, sex — whatever this is — and it’s looking good until she says, “Choke me with that dead cat. That dead cat next to the bed. Choke me with it.” Theodore, dismayed — Phoenix’s facial expressions are masterful — gamely tries anyway: “I’m choking you and its tail is around your neck.” The audience roars. It’s hilarious and terrible.
Throughout the film, we get silent, sunlight-drenched flashbacks to Theodore’s former marriage, the precursor to this disastrous fatal-feline scene. We see Theodore and Catherine battling with orange traffic cones on their heads; we see Catherine mock-choking Theodore, telling him she loves him so much she’s going to kill him. The scenes at once convey intense romance and the question of how real that romance was. What does it mean to love someone so much you want to kill him? Could that grow out of adult love, the kind where you and your partner care deeply for and need each other, but are nonetheless separate beings, with discretely bounded selves? Or did Catherine and Theodore share the kind of love born of desperate need, each half a couple but not two whole people? Throughout, we get the sense that it’s the latter — that Catherine and Theodore never quite got to a place of mutual understanding. Maybe couldn’t get there. He boosted her confidence in ways she couldn’t do herself; he also increasingly shut her out.
Into this emotionally barren landscape enters “the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system,” which Theodore installs onto his computer. His OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) names herself Samantha, which she chooses from a baby naming book she’s read in a fraction of a second. “What makes me me is my ability to grow through experiences,” she tells Theodore. “So basically, in every moment I’m evolving, like you.” Already, she’s teaching him about himself.
With Samantha, Theodore flexes his emotional muscles. Walking around, examining passersby with Samantha in his ear, he says, “Sometimes I look at people and I make myself try and feel them as more than just a random person walking by.” In the same conversation, Samantha admits that she was indulging in a fantasy in which she had a body, which got an itch, which Theodore scratched. Theodore is practicing empathy, with Samantha’s help: hearing her imagine her way into a human body is helping him do the same thing, to imagine his way into other people’s lives and minds. He’s learning from Samantha by watching her become human. Put another way: they’re both becoming human at the same time.
Soon after Samantha enters the picture, Theodore goes on a blind date. If the dead-cat-phone-sex is disconnected, this is only one step better: Theodore and his date (Olivia Wilde) get drunk, like two teens unable to withstand their own anxiety. They’re giddy, have a grand old sloshed time, until they leave the restaurant and stand outside and kiss. Wilde’s character stage-directs Theodore, telling him what she wants — mature, forthright behavior — but in a controlling, aggressive tone: “No tongue. Don’t use so much tongue,” she says. “You can use your tongue a little bit, but mostly lips.” Finally, her anxiety spilling over, she pulls back: “Wait, you’re not gonna fuck me and not call me like the other guys, are you?” Theodore looks taken aback and tells her as much. But she keeps going: “At this age, I can’t let you waste my time if you don’t have the ability to be serious.” It’s clear Theodore wants to not hurt her, but also wants to be truthful, and true to himself. This is a step forward: he’s not completely sealing himself off (as with Catherine), but he also doesn’t want to lead her on past his own emotional capacity. “I don’t know,” he says, honestly. “Maybe we should call it a night.”
His date looks repulsed. “You’re a really creepy dude,” she says. Theodore is stunned, and it’s heartbreaking. Again, he tries to preserve his sense of self. “That’s not true,” he tells her.
“Yeah, it is,” she says. “I have to go home.”
Theodore is crushed. At home, when Samantha asks him how his date went, he looks as though he might cry. “Not so good,” he says. But talking to her affords him a little perspective: “Kind of weird, actually,” he reflects. Samantha prods him for more, and he tells her, “I wanted somebody to fuck me. I wanted somebody to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would have filled this tiny little hole in my heart. But probably not.” Samantha responds like a therapist — which, as a disembodied voice, human-like-but-not-human, she kind of is. She tells Theodore she’s seen him feel many feelings, including joy. Maybe not at this exact moment, but she’s seen it. Again, she’s teaching him what it is to be a person connected to this world: to feel emotions all along the spectrum, and to know that they’ll pass.
This conversation gives way to the X-rated part of their relationship: Theodore and Samantha have sex. The screen fades to black, which is meant to indicate how intimacy can make it feel as though the rest of the world has faded away. We hear this literally in their voice-overs: “Everything else just disappeared,” and “It was just you and me.” But the black screen also helps show what it’s like to be an OS, bodiless and floating. That is, it helps us, the audience, empathize too, with a kind of being we’ve never encountered before.
So, Samantha begins to fill the role of Theodore’s her. Pulsing underneath their relationship is one with Theodore’s closest friend, Amy (Amy Adams), with whom he shares an easy familiarity. She’s with us from the beginning of the film, when we hear an email of hers piped into Theodore’s ears, encouraging him to come out of his self-induced post-divorce isolation. Amy endures her own marital strife, too; she and her husband, then ex-husband, coexist on parallel planes, without any apparent connection. And Amy, like Theodore, ends up in a relationship with an OS, though hers is a platonic friendship. Amy’s OS “doesn’t just see things in black or white. She sees this whole gray area and she’s helping me explore it,” Amy tells Theodore. “We just bonded really quickly.”
These OSes exist in the gap between dysfunctional relationships and functional ones, helping to pull Theodore and Amy from one side to the other. In the interim, they appear to be detached from IRL connection, but really they’re taking a break to figure it out. Yes, it’s a commentary on technology: it’s not simply a force of separation, but can be a practice space that eases us into deeper connection, like a vibrator helps someone who can’t come on her own learn what she likes, so one day she can get it from a partner. But the larger message, of what it takes to learn to relate, has less to do with technology and more to do with how hard it is to be a fully feeling person. “Are you falling in love with her?” Amy asks Theodore when he tells her he’s dating an OS. “Yeah. Does that make me a freak?” he asks. “No,” Amy replies. “I mean, I think that everyone who falls in love is a freak. It’s a kind of socially acceptable insanity.” It is difficult, and scary, and wonderful.
Of course, Samantha doesn’t “cure” Theodore of his own defenses. His resistance to connection rears its head in their relationship, like it did in his marriage. Just as nature gives way to technology, our pasts — collectively and individually — give way to our presents, but in neither case do we ever fully abandon what’s come before. But we progress, as Theodore does, slowly, in fits and starts. He’s getting closer, and less afraid. When his relationship with Samantha comes to an end, he tells her, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.”
“I know,” she says. “Me too. Now we know how.”
Mournful but not despairing, this time Theodore doesn’t isolate himself. He goes over to Amy’s, then leads her onto their apartment building’s roof. Earlier in the film, he’d told Samantha that he and Amy had dated briefly in college, “but it just wasn’t right.” His dismissal doesn’t quash the idea. But whether or not they’re headed for romance, they have a deeper ability to be vulnerable with each other, trust each other, empathize. Amy sits facing out at the skyline and Theodore sits down next to her. They look at each other, then back out into the future.