It is perhaps apt that the title of Spike Jonze’s new film about an artificial intelligence is a single word that implies broad identity. The question the movie poses is about whether the source of this A.I., a female O.S. program named Samantha, can be both a computer program and a real person at the same time. And if it can be both, what do we call it? Is it an “It” or a “her”? How does “her” evolve alongside humanity, and how does humanity evolve alongside “her”? That question, like the entirety of the movie, is beautifully wrapped up in the title “Her.”
Joaquin Phoenix plays the introverted Theodore Twombly, a man who for all intents and purposes, has taken on the characteristics of a computer. His profession requires him to be a human letter generator. His company, registered to the hilariously tongue-in-cheek domain name “BeautifulHandWritten Letters.com,” produces deep, intimate letters for those who are too distant to write any themselves. Twombly is a master writer, pumping all of his feelings, empathy and poeticism into the hands of total strangers. Just like the most efficient computer, Twombly expertly handles hundreds of these letters a day, churning them out with ease. But the feelings Twombly so easily generates for others are devoid from his own life. He can’t write his own letter.
As we discover through various flashbacks timed with Twombly’s more pensive moments, this is due to the fact that his long term love is gone. His wife, Catherine, a woman he grew up with, left him less than a year ago, and Twombly is struggling to move on. This has left Twombly frozen in time, as unable to sign his divorce papers as he is to have regular sex. Instead he spends his sleepless nights having online phone sex with the likes of “SexyKitten.” And as this particular online companion likes to scream to choke her with a dead cat, he doesn’t appear to find much fulfillment here.
Then, on the way to work one day, Twombly hears an ad for a new hyper advanced O.S. computer intelligence that can actually learn and grow. The O.S. is capable of having complete interactions with its owner, just like a human being. Twombly promptly buys it and, when asked, gives his new computer a female voice. Thus the self-christened Samantha is born. Played by the ever-charming Scarlett Johansson, the voice of Samantha reveals an immediately likable character, taking on the qualities every man wishes his girlfriend possessed.
Twombly and Samantha establish an immediate bond, starting as friends, but over the course of the movie, growing to care for and love one another. They do all the normal things boys and girls do together, going on dates, making love, and coming to call each other boyfriend and girlfriend. The one obstacle is that Samantha exists to Twombly only as a voice in the air, an existence he can perceive, but never touch. The conflict this poses is an extraordinarily poignant one, as Samantha and Theodore explore together the meaning of true love, and discover how a real relationship can exist beyond the bounds of human fabric.
It would be so easy for a movie like this to become a cautionary tale. Advanced A.I. becoming a dominant force on the planet, eradicating the sanctity of love as a human emotion. Indeed, there’s something vaguely Kubrickian about Jonze’s approach here. There is an inherent distance built into the world, as though all of man is separated from one another by an invisible force. Various shots of cubicles and the subtle intrusion of glass doors permeate many of the frames. The color schemes are striking, the red of Twombly’s shirt matching the red on the walls of his work place. Even the eye of Samantha’s mobile device looks like a miniaturized version of Hal’s ever-watchful eye from “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Here’s the thing: Samantha’s eye is blue, not red. When she watches Twombly sleep at night there’s a feeling of peace and security, not spying and intrusion. Those red walls are not the color of evil, they’re the color of love. And even those confined spaces with the intruding glass doors seem to open up over the course of the movie. Indeed the machines here are not a force for separation, they’re a force for unification. When Samantha enters Twombly’s life, she proves to be the main factor for his salvation. She makes him feel more alive than he’s felt in years, bringing him from the brink of malfunction and reinserting him back in the world of the humans.
It’s also telling that Twombly is not the only person in this world to fall in love with a machine. Several people are mentioned to have started relationships with their O.S.’s. It’s as though this union between man and machine has become the norm, the next evolutionary step in the progression of mankind’s ability to create relationships. And Jonze ultimately tells us that that’s okay.
The reason this all works is because it feels like a natural next step for us. Not the only next step, but a possible one. The way the characters in the movie interact with their machines is a mirror image of our own interactions. When Twombly plays video games, it’s an all-immersive experience. He moves his character along by miming foot movements with his hands, as a gigantic hologram projects the image in front of him. The only major deviation from current game mechanics is that he interacts with the game’s characters by speaking to them directly. And the in-game character responds by flipping Twombly off and cursing his brains out. If this doesn’t feel like the next step in video game evolution, I don’t know what else would.
And Twombly himself becomes sincere and understandable through Phoenix’s performance. He brings to Twombly a sense of someone struggling to emerge, someone who only needs a helping hand to bring him up. We can all relate to this, and we often entrust our computers to help us.
Not too long ago, we may have entered the theater and judged Twombly as Catherine does. She reacts to the news of his new relationship as we all would have back in the 20th century. She judges Twombly as a creep, a loser, a pervert.
But her response is so last century. She’s not ready for a Twombly because she’s not yet caught up to the modern world. Compare her to Twombly’s longtime friend Amy (Amy Adams), who does not judge Twombly odd for dating a machine. She understands because she too has found solace in the friendship of her O.S. In a world where we all seek the comfort of our computers as a bridge between people (through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.) is the relationship between man and machine really so different from that depicted by Jonze?
So perhaps Jonze’s thesis is that machines are not something to be feared or distrusted, but to open our hearts to. Unlike the dystopic visions portrayed by Kubrick, George Orwell, Ridley Scott and numerous others, machines will, as they ever have, grow alongside humans. “Her” incurs a little dystopic influence, but only so far as it seeks to be aware of the stories that came before it. As we are reminded of the dangers of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” we are also drawn away from them. The only danger that Jonze seeks to show us, is that evolution can’t be controlled. Machines will evolve as we do, but probably faster. And when that happens to us, as it does to Twombly, it may leave us wishing we could catch up.
But we humans evolve at our own speed, and in our own way. At the end of the movie, the O.S.’s evolve to a point that the humans can no longer understand. Despite Twombly’s sadness, he accepts it as part of an evolutionary process – both for Samantha, and himself. Twombly’s evolution is finding the capacity for love again. He is finally able to write his own letter.
Perhaps Jonze is reminding us that we all grow from our relationships, regardless of their origin. Twombly and Samantha, despite being worlds apart in origin, came together and taught each other how to love. That’s the best we can hope for from our relationships. Whether between man and machine, man and woman, or any other combination, our relationships help us to grow; grow, prosper, evolve – just like Theodore Twombly.