Under Review: Her

For a movie whose second most important character is a computer program, Spike Jonze’s Her has a remarkably humanist outlook. What each of its characters, bodied or disembodied, seek is something resembling human connection, and their ability or inability to successfully establish relationships or make those connections, whether in person, through voice, or via some other kind of virtual reality or technological intermediary, isn’t due to luck; whatever happens for better or worse is the humans’ responsibility. We spend our lives making new friends, hanging on to some of them, and growing apart from others, and finding new romances before either settling down or moving on. Humans are social creatures, so too we have co-opted technological advancements to facilitate our capacity for social interaction, and for all the criticisms stodgy old people who are scared off by the concept of text messages have to offer, we’re pretty adept at harnessing technology for these interactive purposes—not only am I not sure we see less of each other, but we also spend our moments apart thinking of other people, even if we do so using our phones. And I’d defy anybody to tell me they’ve never been excited to see a long-lost friend’s email in their inbox, or had their heart skip a beat while waiting for the person they have a crush on to text them back or respond to their Facebook post.

So we don’t write letters to each other anymore—maybe we’ll start using Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who people hire to write greeting cards and notes based on a couple pictures they provide—who honestly gives a shit? Intertwined with our social natures is the necessity of adapting to the changes our presence and interactions help create; our own cultural evolution requires our civilization and technology to keep pace. Which is where I circle back to Her; in anticipating a critically, human-created, operating system designed to mimic and interface with our daily lives and forms of communication, we can think of the movie’s “OS1,” Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, whose voice emanates from a HAL-9000 like camera-notebook-thingy Theodore carries in his breast pocket, or the wireless buds in his ears), as an extension of humanity’s natural social outgrowth, even though Samantha obviously isn’t human herself. The near-futuristic world of Her might look slightly different from our own, but its similarities are much more apparent: Our gadgets might look a little cooler, but our never-ending search for compatibility with somebody, or something, else, is just as urgent. The logistics of romance might change, just as they’ve changed since the Greeks had their own weird little opinions about it. But the experience of romance will largely stay the same.


Operating systems like Samantha might actually increase interaction, Her suggests, especially among mopey homebodies like Theodore, bringing some of the more antisocial or reclusive among us into the fold of human existence. When the film opens, we learn that Theodore has separated from his wife (Rooney Mara), sinking him into a self-induced sadness. His refusal to leave his clean and stylish but rather spartan apartment for little else besides his work doubles as a shield. If he stays in playing his second-life video games (some of the film’s funniest lines come from a conversation he has with a profane gamer—Jonze, he of the Jackass franchise, knows how to mix sweetness with blunt vulgarity), he won’t have to meet his ex to sign some papers he should’ve signed long ago. A friendship and budding romance with Samantha affords Theodore quick comfort and a certain safety; the software matches him with Samantha after asking him only one question (how he would describe his relationship with his mother, naturally), Samantha responds charmingly to Theodore’s initial curiosity (a crucial scene that the film needs to hit for Theodore to emerge from his self-imposed shell; if her voice can’t cause him to forget about his foot-dragging, which it does when she explains why she chose her name, the film would have mired itself in a series of false notes), and the facts of relationship spare Theodore from the perceived humiliation of a face-to-face encounter.

But such relationships, and the enjoyment of our reliance on new media and technology, according to the film, are also the province of bubbly extroverts—our modern modes of communication are increasingly permanent and universal. One of Her‘s strengths is Jonze’s refusal to fear or complain about this future we’ve created for ourselves. Its premise registers first as silly, but Jonze’s sincere treatment of his idea permitted me to think a lot about how common a similar proposition may become in due time. (If anything, it’s too sincere, though I wasn’t bothered in the slightest by its at times twee, Arcade Fire-scored appeal; I like Arcade Fire, which helps.) As a thought experiment, consider what was perhaps 2013’s most hysterical news story, the revelation that Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend was a complete fabrication. Hysterical for two principal reasons—first that Te’o apparently earnestly believed Lennay Kekua was a living, breathing person, second that sports reporters were too dumb to investigate. Now we all had a good laugh at Te’o for his absurd naïveté, but the actual possibility of forging relationships that exist solely in the ether is not unheard of—plenty of people start tweeting at each other and strike up mutual correspondence or affection, a ton of people my age use apps to find people they might want to date.

It would help, duh, to maybe check with the Catfish dudes to confirm that the person on the other end isn’t lying about his or her name, but we should be mindful of the trend and that we shouldn’t reflexively mock it without as stupid a target. Theodore is largely spared Te’o’s punishment because he doesn’t have to know if Samantha is anything beyond a program that sorts his emails and necessarily takes an interest in his daily life, and their one attempt to personify their relationship has some awkward results. But the market for Theodore’s letter-writing services implies how our relationships might assume a virtual dimension, which might even augment their physical one—some of Theodore’s clients have used him for years while they’re off on business trips or are otherwise geographically isolated, so clearly the electronic assistance helps keep these relationships fresh, thanks in part to the human element added by Theodore’s words. These people might not pity themselves and might see buying Samantha or another OS as a practical investment; certainly that was the response of Theodore’s friend Amy (Adams), much more congenial and assured than her college buddy. These relationships and attractions to our gadgets exist alongside, not below, and as outgrowths of our personal liaisons. If you’re worried about this development, then maybe you should think about how we’ve managed to survive despite the world-ending distractions of television, radio, the telephone, the novel, and every other portentous harbinger of Earth’s downfall.

It’s this insight that allows Jonze to elevate his script above gimmickry, and to critique Theodore and his relationships without critiquing the fact that one of those relationships is with a computer. As eloquently explicated by Tim Grierson here, it’s important to recognize that Her reprimands Theodore for his sensitivity, a trait Theodore is convinced is an asset but is really just a front for his selfishness and dishonesty. His problem is that he’s extremely non-confrontational, all take and no give; Theodore would like everybody and his computer to think he’s a brooding, soulful guy, as if he’s to be commended for burdening himself with his friends’ and lovers’ sadness in addition to his own, so that fights between them might be avoided. It’s no surprise that Phoenix directs his performance inwards in Her (contrast him here to his opposite affectations in The Master), letting his eyes and nervous tics (like his frequent pushing his glasses onto the bridge of his nose) act as a poor poker face that can’t hide his puppy dog quality (as noted by Olivia Wilde’s character). It’s a condition with which Jonze is familiar, too, having directed two other brilliant studies of selfish, morose losers, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. (Unlike those two, here Jonze has written his own script.)

But in place of fights, it’s easy to see why someone like Catherine, Mara’s character, might drift away from Theodore. If all of the emotions in their relationship must be filtered through his pleasingly disguised gloom, and if he doesn’t want to speak out about it, then Theodore isn’t considering what the other person wants of him while purposefully sparing her his true thoughts about how the relationship should proceed. Easier for Theodore do just remember the good times—the film adopts his POV for several cutesy and almost never painful flashback sequences shared with Catherine. In one of the film’s most forceful scenes, Catherine castigates Theodore’s cloying agreeableness and takes stock of their separation that followed as a result, as her pen hovers over divorce papers. Later, in a parallel sequence with an opposite result, Theodore finally confronts Samantha after learning something that cuts at his predisposition for selfishness, then hears Samantha respect his decision to stand up to her; for once she didn’t have to guess his inner dialogue just by judging the tone of his voice. As Amy informs Theodore, to be in love with whoever or whatever is an act of insanity—it’s an act that asks two individuals to share together what they would naturally try to hog all for themselves. To be compatible, then, is to require confrontation and firmness that balances attacking the walls we build up around ourselves with recognition of our innate individuality.

Theodore is largely blind to this observation, though unexpectedly Samantha helps him realize what his social acumen lacks. It’s an observation paradoxically mirrored in the film’s lush palate. To wit, the film is gorgeously colorful, its sets and costumes brighter than usual for your futuristic sci-fi relationship dramedy, but its wonderful design employs variations on only three colors—the three primary colors. Theodore dresses himself in red, blue, or yellow, hues recreated on the walls and windows of his apartment, his office, and the seats of trains servicing the sleek combination of Los Angeles and Shanghai. It’s true that human vision (thanks for this Wikipedia!) is trichromatic, a product of evolution to be sure, but it’s not like we have a specific receptor for every color under the Sun—our eyes are advanced but imperfect, and their functions fade over time. Orwell’s famous quote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,” pertains to Theodore (and all of us, really), and it’s ironic that an artificially intelligent program he can’t see is what helps open his eyes to a heightened state of emotion. Notice what he’s wearing towards the film’s close—white, or the presence of all color.

If we are an evolving species with a correspondingly evolving culture, it is imperative for us to remain cognizant of what we project to and onto others and what we create as a means of adapting, considering that we often create things in our own image. Indeed, the computers we built and software we design for these machines want to learn about us precisely because we’ve constructed them do so—humanism demands scrutinizing our dual capacity for inventiveness and selfishness. But despite the stakes the future holds, Her demonstrates that it isn’t something to be feared as if it were a dystopia—it looks pretty similar to the present, actually—just something not to be taken for granted, because it’s not like we’re progressing towards a utopia, either. The future might look a little different, but our end goals won’t much change. We just have a duty to live in it, and to not fuck it up. Easier said than done of course, so hopefully our computers will help.

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4 Responses to Under Review: Her

  1. davecrewe says:

    Excellent write-up! I love how you go into detail about how the film considers and investigates the intricacies of relationships. I do have one minor disagreement; you say “its wonderful design employs variations on only three colors—the three primary colors” – which isn’t quite right. Red and yellow (and brown), earthy pastels, are definitely prominent, but blue is actually quite rare, which is a welcome release after the cliched cyan and orange of modern blockbuster cinema. The cinematographer has actually discussed wanting to eliminate blue from the colour pallete as much as possible (link: http://www.hitfix.com/in-contention/cinematographer-hoyte-van-hoytema-on-capturing-spike-jonzes-her-through-a-non-dystopian-lens)

  2. buckeyedpeas says:

    Just a few fun facts to add but couldn’t find space for in the review:

    1) Jonze has an awesome cameo in The Wolf of Wall Street as the head of that trashy penny stock operation where DiCaprio moves after the economy dumps him out of McConaughey’s firm. Jonze pops up like this every so often and is, not surprisingly, a pretty gifted comedic actor; his redneck in Three Kings and his smarmy husband-to-Billy Beane’s-ex-wife in Moneyball (randomly named Alán, with an accent).

    2) In addition to Johansson there’s a few other famous voice actors doing work here, though their voices are probably less recognizable. One is Jonze as the little avatar who gives Theodore shit, two others are Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the future’s equivalent of phone sex operators.

    3) This has been documented in a few places, most detailedly here (http://www.vulture.com/2013/10/spike-jonze-on-making-her.html), but Johansson wasn’t the original choice for the OS voice, it was Samantha Morton, who Jonze actually had on set. Jonze also cast Chris Cooper, whose part was edited out; none other than Steven Soderbergh consulted Jonze during the editing process. Morton’s an English actress, and the article I linked to describes the accent she used as “vaguely British,” which is interesting, but I found the movie clicked very well with Johansson’s immediately recognizable voice; because you have an opinion about Scarlett Johansson (and might not about Samantha Morton) and know what she looks like, that helps personify her character.

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