“I had wonderful love but I did not give back wonderful love. I was unable to reply to their love. Because I was obsessed with some fictional sense of separation, I couldn’t touch the thing that was offered to me, and it was offered me everywhere.”
— Leonard Cohen, Stina Motör Leonard Cohen. 1996.
Her is largely a film about the role of surrogacy in modern culture, and it is a million times better than that Bruce Willis movie Surrogates. Like that Bruce Willis movie, Her could be labeled science fiction, but unlike that Bruce Willis movie, the reality it illustrates feels so closely within our reach that it hardly requires a stretch of the imagination to seem relatable. Her is about where intimacy resides in a culture packed so densely with surrogacy as a way of life. In it, adventuring, correspondence and romantic partners have been replaced by video games, companies that specialize in writing letters on the behalf of the customer, and operating systems respectively. The significance of connecting with fellow humans is even less of a priority than we have made it out to be today.
Her illustrates this not unfamiliar future with a healthy dose of agnosticism. Our present age is marked by sermons about how we are losing touch with our humanity with each other. This happens, we tell ourselves, because of increasing levels of co-dependence on our devices and the worlds they open to us. Her reminds us that it is not just our access to these devices that is responsible, but also that humans are inherently difficult to deal with. Achieving intimacy with other people can feel altogether impossible. We are complicated and sometimes we get in the way of our own happiness, we let other people get in the way, and this is a reality we gloss over and romanticize when we blame our machines for our more modern tendencies. People have baggage. We all speak in our own cryptic languages. Dating is the worst. Romantic partners grow apart, and lose the chemistry that once brought them together. There are a number of reasons why we prefer the relative ease of a connection by proxy of network and machine over the sometimes herculean task of understanding ourselves and making the effort to connect with each other.
Sometimes that relative ease is itself an illusion, and Her explores this truth. It explores the same impending and inevitable complexities we face in our ever-evolving relationships with intelligent machines. Her reminds that every relationship carries with it its own complexity. We like a companion that cares enough to ask about us, that makes our lives easier or helps us advance in our careers, but when it needs more than that things begin to get messy. When—as becomes the case with Samantha, the operating system protagonist of the film—the needs become even more complex than we can wrap our limited, human brains around it gets even messier. We are reminded that in our dealings with humans or with future intelligent machines, it is often our own inability to navigate the process, not just the process itself (as difficult as it can be), that stands in the way of our achievement of intimacy.
I am sure that other outlets have handled this more intelligently, and also in a more gossip laden fashion than I will, but I couldn’t help but to draw what felt like very obvious lines between the film, Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and [Writer / Director Spike] Jonze’s romantic past. Her feels painstakingly autobiographical. Theo’s ex-wife is his former writing partner / all around partner in crime, and she goes on to great success in her field. Their relationship, respective careers and career trajectories, appear to closely match his relationship with Sophia Coppola. Lost In Translation was also reportedly intensely autobiographical, featured her onscreen counterpart as restless, and portrayed a Jonze-like significant other to be manic, aloof, and unaware of her interests and needs.
The two films, of course, share Johansson in common (Jonze had Johansson overdub the voice of Samantha after actress Samantha Morton had already recorded the parts). In Her, Jonze illustrates Theo, his presumed on-screen counterpart, as aloof and disconnected, and he has Theo come to terms with these short comings. The protagonist eventually writes his ex-wife a letter in which he offers his long-overdue appreciation for her support, for what they had, and he nods to his contribution to their fall. The letter is framed by a larger one, the movie itself, a real-life, reconciliatory response to a decade-long exchange between two former lovers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a joke about that Bruce Willis movie to close this analysis with.
As someone who has been both a decent and crappy significant other in the past, and as someone who strives to be a good one now, I recognized and appreciated much of what Jonze wrote into his film. I enjoyed the honesty, grace and humor that he built into Her. In addition to how well acted the film is (Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams are remarkable, as is Johansson’s voice performance), it is largely in thanks to these offerings that it takes very little time for the viewer to reconcile the relationship between Theo and an his operating system. There are treats for every audience member who has been in love or in a relationship. There are experiences that warmly resonate, and times where one is inclined to yell at the screen to discourage the characters from going down paths well known to deteriorate into strife. For a film that is in part about our relationship with machines, it is packed with humanity and humor, as it is ultimately about our relationship with ourselves and the people we love.
Not to mention that it is about sexy operating systems that have orgasms, create artificially intelligent manifestations of long dead philosophers, and make hilarious illustrations of armpit sex.