Retro fashion and style trends are circular, which is why the best filmic versions of the future contain some element of the past. Writer/director Spike Jonze’s Her takes place in the near future, where modern skyscraper architecture mixes with warm, 50s atomic-age interiors.
Wool high-waisted pants with no belts and shirts buttoned all the way up the neck recall the best and worst of the 30s and the 70s simultaneously. There’s a conservative, drab slant to the fashions, despite some of the rich colors on display, and it gives the instant impression that the city is full of people yearning for a personal connection, hiding in plain sight.
If this all sounds like some sort of cleanly designed hipster Apple ad, well that’s kind of the point. The handheld devices that Apple helped pioneer—and have changed our lives so much in the last 10 years—are integral to the daily fabric in Her. As Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) leaves his spotless, lonely high-rise Los Angeles apartment for work, he is surrounded by thousands of people doing the same thing—every one of them zoned into their own little bubble, talking to someone (or something) on devices that are networked into their home computers.
“Play a melancholy song,” Theodore says to his device, underscoring the supposed ease of instant gratification. Seconds after the tune’s opening strains: “Play a different melancholy song.” If only it were that easy.
Theodore, hurting from a recent separation from his soon-to-be-ex-wife (Rooney Mara), falls in love with a new artificially intelligent operating system he’s purchased for his life in “the cloud”—also known as his life. The OS is named Samantha, and it isn’t long before she’s analyzed all his files. Soon, she’s cleaning up his email inbox and issuing compliments on his work. How’s that for narcissism? But the OS is more than that. As voiced by Scarlett Johansson, she’s got a buoyant personality, and she gets to know Theodore intimately, as no one else has—outside of maybe his longtime friend Amy (Amy Adams), who is married.
As its movie-poster tagline suggests, Her is most certainly “a love story.” Theodore and Samantha grow as a couple, going through all the stages of a long-distance relationship and then some. On that level alone—especially since we only ever see one person in the relationship onscreen—the film is an amazing and beautiful concoction. Phoenix does all the heavy lifting, as we hear both sides of the blossoming romance, but we see it register only on one face.
But Her is so much more than that. It’s an incredibly perceptive movie, doing what great science-fiction films often do: holding up a mirror to our present day. It doesn’t just reflect the ways that technology has irrevocably changed our life, Her challenges the nature of our humanity and exposes a raw nerve. Our need to connect is deeply human. Is it so deep that we will knowingly accept something that is completely mechanized and calculated? Theodore is fully aware that his romantic companion is a construction of binary numbers, yet he forges a deep connection with “her” anyway. (There’s even a couple of very provocative sex scenes, and not at all for the typical reasons.)
Jonze’s nuanced screenplay tips the scales one way, only to balance them out again on the other side, all within the construct of a romantic comedy, albeit one in a relatively minor key. Is their relationship different from any human-to-human one? If anything, it seems to be more compassionate. Living as she does minute to minute with Theodore, Samantha knows him more sympathetically than a human being ever could. He has no secrets. Even more fascinating is how the rest of the world handles the concept of romantic feelings for an OS. When Theodore meets his ex-wife, she asks if he’s dating an OS because he can’t handle a real relationship. But Samantha is real in every sense, other than having a corporeal form, and you don’t need that to go on a romantic picnic.
The thing holding back human relationships has always been fear, and Her doesn’t damn the virtual world straight out, but rather it asks whether technology will one day help humans to overcome that fear more easily. Through all the technological innovation that surrounds us and enables us to be “social,” it is still our decision, our role, our challenge—to allow relationships to develop. To be personal and authentic. Will our reliance on mobile computers help or hinder that development?
In some cases, to be sure, the answer is negative. But not for Theodore. His job—the actual career he gets paid for—is to be more human. He composes “beautiful handwritten letters” for people who can’t find the right words themselves. Ironically, he does this not by writing or even using a keyboard, but by dictating them out loud. No wonder Samantha fell in love with him through conversation.
Her sheds light on the universal questions and mysteries of love, and in some ways can be considered a companion piece not just to an obvious corollary like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but also to movies like Blade Runner and A.I.:Artificial Intelligence. All of those films ask the same question through different lenses: What is it exactly that makes us human?
Her takes two storylines—the Theodore/Samantha romance and the maturity of machine learning—to what feels like their natural, inevitable, conclusions. With a fierce intellect and keen observations about our place in the world, it is a movie rooted in the now. Only time will tell how prescient it really is.