Spike Jonze’s Her takes place in an unrecognizable Los Angeles (shot both in L.A. and Shanghai) in which Siri has been replaced with an operating system, OS1, that is basically sentient, able not just to talk like a human but to pick up on tone and body language like one, too. That means that people are, quite literally, falling in love with their machines and finding all the solace and connection they need not in other humans, but in their shirt-front pockets.
Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) exemplifies that case and thus represents every one of us who cares a little too much about our social networks, text messages, computers and phones. He has long been reluctant to finalize his divorce from Katherine (Rooney Mara), but after making it official with Samantha (that’s OS1, wonderfully voiced by Scarlett Johansson) he decides he’s ready to move on.
It’s hard to blame Theo for opting for a machine instead of a human. Samantha is nice, funny, encouraging, and tends to say all the right things. For the simple-minded male, she’s perfect. She doesn’t even mind that Theo is playing video games!
Thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s wonderful, off-beat performance and Johansson’s seductive and flirtatious Samantha, the one-human romance is thoroughly convincing and even moving, but Jonze is clearly pulling at our heart strings more than he is working our head. Despite an important story character having only a handful of minor scenes, there is never any mystery as to how Her is going to end, and every time an opportunity to ask difficult questions arises, as when Theo tells people that his girlfriend is an operating system, or when he attends his goddaughter’s birthday party, these questions are brushed off in favor of a cute joke, as if afraid to push our boundaries or ask uncomfortable questions. Her almost asks “what’s wrong with falling in love with your computer if he/she is nearly sentient?” but it instead says “don’t fall for it” and rattles off rather familiar reasons or sees Jonze turn to his admittedly great wits.
Too often, though, these jokes come at the expense of gamers. Multiple times, we see Theo mindlessly playing a video game that consists of simple hand motions and a number of inappropriate jokes by an in-game character, and when Theo gets a date all he can talk about his game and how he really cares about that character—cares about him more, we will soon learn, than he cares or wants to care about the beautiful woman who takes him seriously. Despite the artistic growth in video games in the past few years alone, Her’s future is one that points towards video games as a worthless and antisocial activity.
But Her manages to put a great deal into just a few details. Theo’s job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com involves “writing” (that is, dictating) letters for other people that a computer spits-out in a nice font resembling handwriting. That Theo’s job exist means that there are tons of other people out there struggling to connect with humans—Theo even writes letters from parents to their kids!—and also plays up the millennial generations growing nostalgia for analog media in a digital age. Indeed, there is a line much later about a publishing company that still prints actual books. Because Theo’s life is so isolated from other people, there are only a couple moments where we get to see how far other people’s obsession with technology goes, so his job makes the film’s story more believable while also fleshing out the film’s city.
The city is the most interesting component of Her. The monorail goes everywhere, there are subways, people live in beautiful high-rises (yes, in Los Angeles!) with freshly upholstered leather furniture and polished hardwood floors, dress in comfortable but sharp takes on business-casual attire, and don’t seem to have much to worry about. They spend time at the beach, staring out at yellow sunsets and architectural marvels, and are lively people who would be completely happy if they were not so lonely. Unfortunately, that nobody thinks it odd that Theo is walking around with his phone held out playing a game with Samantha suggests that it isn’t exactly an unusual sighting. There is hope, though; that same scene is followed by a look at a family dinner that shows there are still people out there who love their children, and not everybody, particularly Katherine, finds it acceptable to have an OS for a girlfriend.
There are a sufficient handful of conversations that get to the core of why a human-A.I. relationship is not much more genuine than having phone-sex with a pregnant woman calling herself sexy-kitten, but what it means to not be a person is thankfully left as subtext. While Ruby Sparks used heavier monologues to tell us why that film’s romance was unnatural, Her lets us fall in love with Samantha before showing truth. In the end, the message we are left with is nothing we have not been told countless times before, be it by our parents, other art, or an article on any number of cultural webzines, Her gets a pass because Jonze lets it unfold so naturally (in his first original screenplay, at that).
Still, whether Her ever answers its central question is up for debate, and while there is a clear answer in the waiting, that loving imperfections is the most valuable and important part of love, and that the perfect models leave out this defining nuance, is never made clear enough. Her, with its piano-heavy score and swelling string sections (by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett), strives to make us feel, but it rarely makes us think. At heart, this is a romantic comedy, the biggest difference being that we only see one of the lead bodies. For a film rife with ideas, it’s hard not to be disappointed by its simplicity.