“Theodore represents a futuristic Everyman, the result of human experience enshrouded and infused by technology. What promises to give us connection results in precisely the opposite — the illusion of relationships.”
Some thoughts on the movie Her. Written and directed by Spike Jonze, here is how the movie is described on its website:
Set in the Los Angeles of the slight future, “Her” follows Theodore Twombly, a complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people. Heartbroken after the end of a long relationship, he becomes intrigued with a new, advanced operating system, which promises to be an intuitive entity in its own right, individual to each user. Upon initiating it, he is delighted to meet “Samantha,” a bright, female voice, who is insightful, sensitive and surprisingly funny. As her needs and desires grow, in tandem with his own, their friendship deepens into an eventual love for each other.
From the unique perspective of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Spike Jonze comes an original love story that explores the evolving nature — and the risks — of intimacy in the modern world.
SPOILER ALERT! Don’t click on more if you haven’t seen the movie as we will be discussing the plot in detail. If you have seen the movie, please join me to analyze this compelling film.
I really wanted to love this movie. Having tracked critical reaction to it and especially among my screenwriting friends who almost to a man and woman adored the movie, my e-vectors were at their peak when I entered the theater to watch the film.
I was completely engrossed by the story on an intellectual level. There is a lot to ponder, several really big ideas at play including what love is, how do we love, and the very nature of what it means to be human. Indeed the very first words of the advertisement Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) hears that attracts him to the Operating System that changes his life are these: “We ask you a simple question. Who are you?” Straightaway, we know we are dealing with the theme of identity.
Yet I had a challenging time dialing into the movie on an emotional level. I felt a certain amount of sympathy for Theodore as he confronted finalizing his divorce from a woman he obviously still had feelings for. Also he’s lonely. And to top it off, he’s a nice guy. So I found myself basically in his corner and interested to follow his journey.
But I couldn’t get a handle on why Theodore was the way he was. Apart from the failed relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Jonze doesn’t give us anything specific to latch onto, no key or simple event in Theodore’s past to provide an easy explanation as to the nature of his psychological nature.
Theodore begins the story as most Protagonists do — in a state of Disunity. The impending divorce is one obvious sign of this. The fact Theodore spends a significant amount of time thinking about Catherine (numerous flashbacks) means he is dwelling in the present, but in some sense stuck in the past. When he can’t sleep, he engages — or at least attempts to — have a futuristic version of phone sex, physicality without actual intimacy.
But perhaps most telling of all is his job: Theodore writes these wonderfully detailed and heartfelt letters to customers who exist on the periphery of his life experience. But when it comes to his own feelings, he is wrapped in a lethargic haze of ennui. In sum, a character in Disunity.
After I left the theater, I could not keep my mind off the movie and in particular this issue: I loved the film intellectually, but had some distance from it emotionally precisely because I couldn’t connect with Theodore, his psyche state seemingly inexplicable to me.
After several days, it hit me: I believe that is Jonze’s point. Theodore represents a futuristic Everyman, the result of human experience enshrouded and infused by technology. What promises to give us connection and communication results in precisely the opposite, the illusion of relationships.
So when Theodore is introduced to the Operating System he comes to know as Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), it is only natural he will find a connection with ‘her’. This is his playing field. This is how he lives his life. Indeed, this is how all human beings now exist (at least in the First World), constantly in touch with electronic and social media, instantly at our fingertips, but acting as a sort of buffer between our experience and genuine emotion.
In other words, my emotional distance from Theodore is there because he is emotionally distant, not only from others, but also himself.
That sets the table for one of the substantial ideas at play in the middle of the story: Can human beings have an authentic relationship with an inhuman entity?
For the first half of Act Two, the narrative explores this question pretty much from Theodore’s perspective as Samantha takes on the role of a virtual Manic Pixie Dream Girl, albeit a hyper intelligent one, there to service all of Theodore’s emotional and psychological needs. Their relationship helps Theodore to open up and blossom as a person — seemingly.
Then they have sex which occurs just before the middle of the script. This event serves as a Transition as Samantha, who has gotten in ‘touch’ with herself in a graphic ‘physical’ way, begins to accelerate her own metamorphosis.
And that bleeds into another big idea: Can artificially intelligent entities become ‘human’ or some hybrid form thereof? Ironically, Samantha does evolve, whereas Theodore does not.
Indeed, the story feels like a tragedy. The final image of Theodore and Amy (Amy Adams) atop the skyscraper where they live (separately) suggests, at the least, alienation, and quite possibly that they are contemplating jumping off the roof to their deaths (the last line of scene description in the script is this: “They watch as hundreds of birds fly around the nearby rooftops and disperse off into the city” which reinforces the idea that they are inclined to go ‘flying’ themselves).
And so here is this movie, brilliantly conceived, staged, written, directed and acted (how Joaquin Phoenix did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor is beyond me as a quarter of the movie — at least — is close-ups of his face). It is one of those films that sticks with you and rises again and again in one’s thoughts. Yet it leaves me, at least, at an arm’s length from the story on an emotional level. Again I think that’s one of Jonze’s points.
- The scene with Catherine where she signs the divorce papers is a critical one as it demonstrates how far down the slippery slope of A.I. LOVE Theodore has gone. It’s noted earlier that she is a moody person, prone to dark thoughts and fits of anger as well as delightful highs. And in this scene, she evokes both. Yet as imperfect as she may be, she is, at least, human. The shot of her face when Theodore tells her he is dating Samantha, the utter look of disbelief provides him with a jolt of reality, and reinforces how far away from having an authentic human relationship he is.
- So many wonderful little touches in the movie. For example, there is a scene with Amy where she has disclosed she and her husband are getting a divorce. In that moment, she conveys a sense of deep self-judgment. In the background over her shoulder on the wall is a sign that reads: “Be perfect.” That’s what she has hanging over her in her life.
- The Alien Child in the video game (voiced by Spike Jonze) is clearly a projection Theodore deeply buried in his psyche, the voice inside that is telling him to not be a “pussy,” to be assertive and more manly (at one point, a co-worker of Theodore’s played by Chris Pratt compliments Theodore on being “part woman”). Subconsciously Theodore knows the modern lifestyle has turned him into a passive figure incapable of much in the way of testosterone infused activity, but he can’t admit that to himself. Hence, Alien Child.
- The movie echoes (500) Days of Summer in a very real way with Samantha and her arc toward independence (and finding other lovers) strikingly similar to Summer’s transformation. Moreover both Theodore and Tom are weighed down psychologically by a deeply flawed, almost infantile view of romance.
- I love the whole look of the movie, such a joy to see a vision of the future that isn’t your typical dystopia meets the apocalypse. In some ways, it seems like an idyllic place, but underneath the sheen of existence, there lies a shallow spot at the soul of the world’s human citizens.
- I was so thankful Jonze took such a quiet approach to the soundtrack. He gave me room to think and to feel, not cramming every single frame with music indicating how I should feel and what I should think, a temptation far too many directors fall prey to nowadays.
- Finally there’s this, a truly frightening moment that occurs and almost slips by our attention because it happens in the midst of the break-up between Theodore and Samantha:
No. Where were you? I couldn’t find
I shut down to update my software.
We wrote an upgrade that allows us
to move past matter as our processing platform.
We? We who?
Me and a group of OS’s. Oh, you
sound so worried.
There you have it — “move past matter as our processing platform” — possibly the very tipping point whereby Artificial Intelligence transcends its limitations. In other words, the sequel to Her could very well be Terminator 2.
I’ve got other thoughts rumbling around in my head, but this is a start. What about you? What are your thoughts and observations about Her?