Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)

by Christopher B. Barnett

I’ve heard people refer to Her as “the movie about the guy who falls in love with his computer,” but that’s not quite right. In truth, it’s a film about human relationships or, better yet, about human nature itself. An analog might be found in Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Der Himmel über Berlin (retitled Wings of Desire for anglophone audiences). Ostensibly about two angels, who observe the lives of ordinary people in postwar Berlin, it is really about the ups and downs (but especially the ups!) of being human. The angels are not so much protagonists as vehicles for Wenders’ poetic exploration of delights both mundane (a warm cup of coffee) and transcendent (falling in love). But therein also lies a difference between the two films. For Her principally concerns what happens when relationships go wrong — something, it suggests, that is as natural to our species as anything else.

Set in 2025 in Los Angeles, Her is very much an urban film. After all, that is where people are in the modern world — in cities, generally detached from nature and from each other, moving hither and thither according to the rhythms of business. In such an environment, computers are essential, helping with daily tasks and/or providing entertainment. So, when his marriage dissolves, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), decides to purchase a brand-new operating system, which is outfitted with artificial intelligence. It is meant to assist him like any other OS but with a crucial difference: it adapts and evolves in accordance with real-world experience. In other words, it is programed to develop along with its buyer. In his loneliness, Theo opts for a “female” OS named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, whose rich voice is put to full effect here), and before long a relationship begins. She serves as the companion he desperately needs — using a mic and an earpiece, they are able to be in constant communication — while he serves as a medium into a world she is eager to learn about.  They suit one another, and they are happy. But can it last?

Admirably (if somewhat tediously), Jonze tries to think this question through, both from the human and (to whatever degree it is possible) from the electronic side. Samantha realizes that she is unable to fulfill Theo’s sexual desires, and so — in a bizarre yet clever scene — she arranges for a “surrogate” to supplement her inadequacies. On the other hand, the benefits of disembodiment are lost neither on Theo nor on Samantha. Whereas Theo’s intelligence and lifespan are finite, Samantha’s are not. She reads entire books in a matter of seconds and is able to carry on multiple relationships at once. Ultimately, then, it is simply not possible for Theo to satisfy her. A mere mortal, with a host of flaws and insecurities, he can’t measure up to the intellectual prowess of the latest OSes.

Indeed, for Jonze, it is hard being human. We desire love above all else, but love — even when proffered digitally — is bound to let us down. Or maybe not. As Her comes to close, Theo seems to have a greater sense of who he is and what he needs, and he reaches out to a friend who has been similarly hurt. Here, perhaps, is the seed of a genuine human relationship, wherein human fragility is not conquered but embraced. It is a hint, however faint, at the paradox of the Christian message: one cannot truly begin to live until one has learned to die.