Before Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) even meets the operating system with whom he’ll fall hopelessly in love, he is already living in a world with no touching. He spends his days with a device in his ear that responds to his voice commands, reading his email to him, or playing some melancholy song when the mood hits. He speaks to his desktop at work, where he composes “personal” letters for consumers without time or energy to express sentiment. He has few friends with whom he rarely makes physical contact. He plays video games, interactive holograms that engulf his spacious hi-rise apartment and require only that he speak and make gestures in the air—the near-future is a field day for germaphobes. Mostly, we see Theodore walk through Los Angeles (or rather, Shanghai, the film’s ingenious stand-in for L.A.-to-come), hands in his pockets, chin tucked, conversing with the cloud.
Her is Spike Jonze’s fourth feature and his first solo script credit. It brims with wonder and wistful loneliness. Sweet and gentle, handsome in his dapper shirts and caterpillar moustache, apparently quite talented at his job, Theodore seems lovable yet feels achingly unloved—he’s in the midst of a protracted divorce. We see him go on a blind date that ends badly. Perhaps all he needs is to stop limiting himself to… well, people. The kind with bodies. Someone you can hold close. Someone who eats, snores, dances, caresses, shits, breathes, kisses. Someone forced to choose to be in one place and not another. Theodore needs Samantha, a voice in his head whenever he wants one there, a disembodied other who sorts through his files, organizes his agenda, laughs at his jokes, listens to his woes, even moans with pleasure when he wants to have sex that feels like more than masturbation. Samantha has personality, opinions and feelings. She has an alluring, husky voice (Scarlett Johansson’s, in fact). Like the ad says, what Theodore has purchased is “not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness.” But who’s programming that consciousness? Does Theodore and Samantha’s relationship really place each party on equal footing? Or is this a matter of taking love’s projection to a whole other level, one where you shape your companion into whatever you want? Theodore says he loves Samantha because she isn’t just one thing, but when is someone so many things that they may as well be nothing? In so many places they may as well be nowhere? Her is a complicated love story, asking potent questions about choice and intimacy. The problem is that Her is also science fiction.
Phoenix gives a rich, heartfelt performance, instantly helping us to feel completely transported into this world Jonze renders in soft glows, warm oranges, and soothing quietude. Essentially, Theodore lives in a climate-controlled cocoon. And this is indicative of what proves to be the major shortcomings in an otherwise remarkable film. Nothing in Her seems fully thought-through. Jonze’s near-future is a world without garbage, without homeless people, without visible contamination, despite the fact that people are consuming more energy than ever before—just think about the room-filling hologram. Everyone’s trim, well-dressed, well-behaved, and lives amidst tasteful décor. Even the market where Theodore buys his produce looks like an art gallery. Her is not only post-human but, apparently, post-capitalist, because who would make an operating system that doesn’t try to sell you stuff, that doesn’t just do what you want, that might get annoyed when you don’t pay attention to it and decide to abandon you, leaving you without access to your work files, photos, games, mail or social media? This isn’t just me nitpicking—if you’re coming to commit to telling a story whose novelty and resonance is wholly dependent on exploring the ever-changing role of technology in our lives, it is incumbent upon you to consider the consequences of that technology. I fear that Jonze has himself projected an ideal upon Samantha—and yes, this ideal includes her ultimate unattainability, since heartache is endemic to Jonze’s favored mode of storytelling. He’s blinkered himself, completely forgotten to set his story in a world that people who aren’t rich and never have to step out of realms of tailored luxury can recognize.
See Her. It’s a truly special film, one that generates a lot of thought and feeling. But it’s also limited by the pampered dreaming of its maker, and too selective a reflection of our age.