Downloading Love - Spike Jonze’s “Her” Looks at Our Present and Future
Originally written in March of 2014
“Falling in love is like a socially acceptable form of insanity,” says the character Amy in Spike Jonze’s “Her.” If she’s right, where does falling in love with our technology land on the insanity spectrum? How many times have you heard someone say they love their smart phone? In this futuristic love story that phone loves you right back, providing a tragically beautiful and awkward looking glass into where human-to-human and human-to-AI relationships may be heading.
Set in the not-too-distant future of downtown Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hopeless romantic, longing to actually experience a love similar to the letters he pens for couples that can’t write them themselves. Theodore is able to recite poetry (his computer “hand writes” it on the screen as he speaks) for complete strangers, but can’t bring himself to lend his signature to the divorce papers, which his estranged wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara) so vehemently insists he signs. Theodore’s silent flashbacks paint sad and fond memories of the soured relationship, and he admits that he’s having trouble letting go. “I still find myself having conversations with her in my mind, rehashing old arguments and defending myself against things she said about me.”
Suddenly a new operating system is introduced, and like the latest Apple upgrade, Theodore downloads it. In the blink of an eye, or click of a mouse, rather, Theodore is sitting in his modern apartment having a full-blown conversation with his artificial intelligent (AI) operating system, OS1, who names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha grows increasingly inquisitive about human nature, and before you know it she and Theodore are going out on dates. And having sex. The first time is pretty passionate (seriously) and the second time is well, disturbing. A surrogate woman donates her services and things get weird (or weirder).
Jonze’s directing is poetry in motion. The warm glow of the sun seems to rest in a state of indecision, complimenting Theodore’s red and yellow oxford button downs and the hues of the film are as easy on the eyes as Karen O’s “Moon Song” is on the ears. Theodore and Samantha perform a loving duet of the tune, while Arcade Fire provides a somber new-wave score throughout the film. And not only is Jonze’s world beautifully red, it is also pretty green. Everybody walks or takes the train.
Of course this world is only as believable as its actors, and the performances are stellar all around. Adorned in a mustache, high waisted brown trousers, and round specs, Phoenix nails Theodore as a man in love with the idea of love, but unable to handle all of the challenges that surrounds it. Even though Scarlett Johansson is never seen in physical form, her familiar voice literally fills the screen. As a result, we sympathize with Theodore’s heartbreak, and we feel Samantha’s excitement with every new experience, even though she’s nothing but chips and wires. “You feel real to me, Samantha,” Theodore coos. And she feels real to us, too, showing the strengths of Jonze’s screenplay writing.
Amy Adams shares her character’s first name and she does a great job playing Theodore’s former college flame. The way Amy still gazes at Theodore implies that she would pull the plug on her unsupportive fiancée, Charles (Matt Letscher) and run away with him if he was game. Instead, Theodore has chosen to run away with Microsoft Word. Ouch. And even though their screen-times are brief, Olivia Wilde as a blind date gone crazy, and Kristen Wiig as a sex chat room caller gone kinky, give poignant depictions of just how fruitless looking for love in this new age of technology can be. Perhaps the hardest thing to believe in this sci-fi love flick is that Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is so widely accepted - Everyone’s reaction in the film to Theodore dating someone (thing) he can’t see or touch sort of goes from “Really?” to “Eh, whatever, Samantha’s cool” in a matter of seconds. It’s sad because it just reiterates how bleak human relationships have been to make human-computer relationships seem that much better.
Today people can’t have decent conversations with each other without checking their texts or Twitter, and in “Her,” people are too occupied talking to the OS in their earpiece to be speaking with anyone that breathes. Still, Jonze makes it hard to blame them. The OS resides in your ear, but is less obnoxious-looking than a Bluetooth earpiece, types as you speak, organizes your emails and can play you a melancholy tune if you’re feeling melancholy. I found myself wanting my own Samantha to organize my files, too, and therein lies the rub of “Her:” We’re getting closer and closer to our phones, tablets, and smart TVs and farther and farther away from normal, healthy relationships with other people.