For the vast majority of American families, what seems to be the real point of life—what you rush home to get to—is to watch an electronic reproduction of life … this purely passive contemplation of a twittering screen.
—Alan Watts, What Is Wrong With Our Culture
In the beginning there was only the Self, like a person alone … But the Self had no delight as one alone has no delight. It desired another. It expanded to the form of male and female in tight embrace and then fell into two parts…. She thought, "How can He have intercourse with me, having produced me from Himself?”
—Alan Watts, OM: The Sound of Hinduism
The Zen guru-philosopher Alan Watts plays only a minor role in Spike Jonze’s extraordinary new film Her—which is unsurprising, given that Watts died in 1973, and Her is set in a timeless but nearby future. The inclusion of Watts in the film seems intended primarily to serve as a signpost, a statement of filmmaker intent. That’s fitting, because the movie Jonze has produced is an unlikely synthesis of the sentiments conveyed in the two Watts quotations above: at once technological and transcendental, skeptical and ecstatic, a work of science fiction that is also a moving inquiry into the nature of love.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore Twombly, a former LA Weekly writer who now works for a firm called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. As the film opens, he has been commissioned to write a love letter from a wife to her husband of 50 years. As he speaks to his computer, words appear on the screen. (However beautiful, the letters are not handwritten, nor even hand-typed, as keyboards have been banished from this particular future.) “Lying naked beside you in that apartment,” Theodore dictates, “it suddenly hit me that I was a part of this whole larger thing. Just like our parents, and our parents’ parents.”
Closed off and insecure in his personal life, Theodore pours his romantic self into these letters, loving vicariously as an intermediary for others. Recently divorced, tingling with loneliness, he grasps furtively for connection through phone sex and videogames. “Play a melancholy song,” he commands his ever-present handheld device—and when the chosen melody does not suit, “play a different melancholy song.”
Then he meets Samantha.
Or, to be more accurate, he purchases her. For Samantha—she chooses the name herself—is also known as OS1, the first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore powers her up on his computer and at the first sound of her lively purr we can see that he is lost. Samantha is, after all, voiced (brilliantly) by Scarlett Johansson.
The love story that gradually unfolds is no less touching for its unorthodox structure. Samantha is in Theodore’s earpiece, in his handheld. He carries the latter around in his shirt pocket so that Samantha’s camera-eye can peek out at the wide world. Hers is the last voice he hears at night and the first he hears in the morning; she watches him as he sleeps. Over time, Samantha grows and learns, encountering selfhood, discovering her own wants, maturing at warp speed. Before long, Theodore is introducing her as his girlfriend.
Though intimate in scope, Her is vast in its ambition. Every time it seems that Jonze may have played out the film’s semi-comic premise, he unveils an unexpected wrinkle, some new terrain of the mind or heart to be explored. Though the relationship between Theodore and Samantha forms the movie’s central thread, Jonze weaves in a variety of intricate counter-narratives, alternative lenses through which to view his subjects of inquiry: Theodore’s own profession as a Cyrano-for-hire, a blind date gone awry, a videogame pantomiming parenthood, a visit from a sex surrogate that flips all the usual assumptions about what is real and what illusory. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara (as his ex-wife) and Amy Adams (as his closest friend) offer Theodore diametrically opposed—though individually persuasive—readings of his relationship with Samantha: a romantic dialectic.
As Theodore, Phoenix is heartbreaking in his vulnerability. Tender and tentative behind round glasses and a heavy moustache, Theodore is the super-ego that was somehow split off the raging id of Phoenix’s performance in last year’s The Master. Johansson is, if anything, a greater revelation still: Who imagined that, freed from the constraints of physical form, she was capable of such exquisite subtlety? Gentle, playful, easily wounded yet infectious in her enthusiasm, her Samantha is one of the more recognizably human characters of the movie year, binary code or no binary code.
Which is, of course, Jonze’s point. The role of Samantha was originally voiced by Samantha Morton, and one can’t help but try to imagine the movie that would have resulted from that casting. But after filming, Jonze decided to replace Morton with Johansson, and it’s not hard to see why. Her voice—breathy, occasionally cracking—warms the entire film. This is no ordinary computer Theodore has fallen for.
The future Jonze has conjured is a warm one as well, rather than some sterile cybernetic dystopia. His Los Angeles has been verticalized by the addition of exteriors shot in Shanghai, but it is a city of bright colors and soft lighting. The aesthetic is pleasantly retro: furniture is burnished wood, and men’s pants (in perhaps Jonze’s most idiosyncratic touch) are woolen and high-waisted. The handheld in which Samantha resides is smooth and elegant, like the vintage cigarette case it is intended to recall. Indeed, Jonze’s vision of the future is so familiar, so enveloping, that it occasionally feels as if we’re already there.
Her is a remarkably ingenious film but, more important, it is a film that transcends its own ingenuity to achieve something akin to wisdom. By turns sad, funny, optimistic, and flat-out weird, it is a work of sincere and forceful humanism. Taken in conjunction with Jonze’s prior oeuvre—and in particular his misunderstood 2009 masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are—it establishes him firmly in the very top tier of filmmakers working today.
Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—of which Her is a clear descendant—Jonze’s film uses the tools of lightly scienced fiction to pose questions of genuine emotional and philosophical weight. What makes love real: the lover, the loved one, or the means by which love is conveyed? Need it be all three?
Yes, it is impossible for Theodore to have any clue what’s going on in Samantha’s “mind.” But how, the film asks from several interlocking vantage points, does that make their relationship different from any other? When Theodore confesses to the Adams character (also named “Amy”) that he and Samantha have been having amazing sex, “unless she’s been faking it,” Adams tartly cuts to the chase: “I think everyone you have sex with is probably faking it.”
Indeed, by the end of the film, the central question Jonze is asking seems no longer even to be whether machines might one day be capable of love. Rather, his film has moved beyond that question to ask one larger still: whether machines might one day be more capable of love—in an Eastern philosophy, higher consciousness, Alan Wattsian way—than the human beings who created them.