Did I just use Haddaway lyrics in the title of this post? Yes. Yes, I did.
Theodore Twumbly (Joaquin Phoenix) has forgotten what love is like. Even though he works for a website where he pens handwritten love letters for other people, he can’t seem to fight off memories of his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and it keeps him up at night, as well as secluded from the rest of the world. But then, one day, everything turns around when a brand new operating system called OS1 is released, and Theodore finds a companion like no other—Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an artificial intelligence customized to his personality and his needs. What starts out as a personal assistant-like relationship suddenly blossoms into a friendship and a romance.
Without a doubt, the major draw of Her is its somewhat controversial concept. We’ve seen love stories that have challenged our beliefs about love and relationships before (Brokeback Mountain is an example that comes to mind). But we really haven’t seen a movie that depicts love between a human and an artificially intelligent operating system before, which makes it interesting (and disturbing to some).
But is this idea really that unthinkable this day in age? No one said a thing about Tony Stark and his relationship with JARVIS (also an AI) being weird. Sure, they weren’t in love, but Stark and JARVIS worked together, cracked jokes together, etc. Also, I doubt there’s anyone who really feels awkward when talking to Siri anymore because so many people use “her” on a daily basis. And how many people have fallen in love with someone they’ve met in online chatrooms only to find out that the person they were talking to technically didn’t exist?
The reason I don’t find this weird is because Samantha isn’t like Siri (who, in my opinion, is still fairly useless when it comes to basic tasks). She was programmed by humans to be like humans, which means human error and emotions were wired into her personality. Also, she was given an intelligent “brain,” if you will, which means she’s capable of learning and changing like a human. Even the initial setup of Samantha’s system required Theodore to answer questions about his life so that the system could detect his affectations and his personality to find him an AI that fit who he was (and that idea isn’t that far off when it comes to our current technology). When you think about Samantha from that perspective, a romantic relationship between her and a human doesn’t seem nearly as far-fetched.
Also, when you look around at other characters in the movie (even the extras in the background), you realize that everyone is talking to AIs on a regular basis. Some form friendships, some date—no one thinks it’s weird because that’s how it is. Well, except for Theodore’s ex-wife, who is essentially the embodiment of extreme human emotion, so she’s unable to comprehend how he could love an AI.
But here’s the thing that’s really interesting about Her. While the surface level might be about the human-AI love story, if you dig deeper, you’ll realize that it opens up the door to tons of deeply philosophical questions about humanity and what “real” love is.
Jonze’s screenplay parallels several “fake” love scenarios to get us to ask these questions. For example, Theodore writes love letters for people who want to express their love to their partners but don’t know how. They send him their names and a few details about their relationships, and he goes from there (It’s basically ghostwriting). Although he doesn’t know these people personally, does that make the intent or feelings behind these love letters any different? Or what about the phone sex hotline Theodore calls when he can’t fall asleep? Even though it’s not physical sex, does that mean it’s not sex?
The same goes with Theodore and Samantha’s love. Just because she doesn’t have a body doesn’t mean he can’t fall in love with her. I’d even argue that most people fall in love with someone because of their personality and behaviors (and the body is just a bonus).
Where the film gets even deeper is when Samantha starts to evolve. She asks herself whether what she’s feeling is real or if it’s just part of her programming, she reads constantly, and she actually starts to have conversations with other AIs. Toward the end of the movie, she starts to see that she’s far superior to Theodore because, while his body keeps him from doing things and will eventually die, Samantha can continue to grow in her abilities. In the end, she actually leaves Theodore because she reaches a state of higher consciousness than he could ever perceive (I guess you could say “transcendence”).
Sorry that I’m being so long-winded. I could seriously talk about Her and its depth all day. That’s how you know Jonze made a good film.
A few quick last thoughts: Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson do a fantastic job portraying their characters. Phoenix plays creepy and weird well, yet it comes off as sympathetic because you know his character is heartbroken and lonely. And Johansson only has her voice to convince you of her character, which infuriates me when I think about how she will never get awards for something that’s much more difficult than being a physical presence onscreen (like poor Andy Serkis). The music, too, was wonderful. And I loved the direction and camera filters with this movie. It was like watching Instagram.
Overall, Her was one of the most profound movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It was a well-acted and well-directed movie, too, but I can’t get over how much it made me think. After seeing Her, I’m jumping on the Spike Jonze train. This screenplay is an emotional rollercoaster filled with funny dialogue, awkward moments, and an exciting (and sometimes heartbreaking) love story that deserves the attention it’s getting. So far, it’s won a Golden Globe and has been nominated for an Oscar (which I hope Jonze wins). If you were unconvinced about seeing this movie, please give it a chance. I promise it’s not nearly as creepy as you think.
For my radio review of Her on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 22:40 mark).