Spike Jonze’s under-seen I’m Here boasted a surprising level of pathos beneath its gimmick of protagonist robots. It becomes apparent that sadness is universal; machines can correlate with humans purely in terms of social perceptions and slotted emotions. That slant is carried on to Her, also written and directed by Jonze, whereupon an advanced iPhone app can satisfy that need for human comfort – not by replacing a companion, but by sharing the user’s depression.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is the main case study for how an OS (operating system) can work in an acceptable way, rather like how online dating is slowly creeping into our social awareness, one Guardian article at a time. He may be a lonely single man who lives on his own playing computer games, but he’s also still recovering from a breakup with an ex-wife (Rooney Mara).
With a fancy flat and presumably healthy income, Theordore’s career also involves writing love letters on behalf of customers, suggesting he is a gifted manipulator. After sabotaging a date (with Olivia Wilde), he develops an intimate bond with his mobile phone’s operating system: she’s called Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and is always a PIN code away. There’s no physical presence (and not even an image on the phone), but Johansson’s lively tone is too warm to truly feel like an intricate computer programme. “I’m yours,” she admits, “but not yours.” Well, if the software numbs the pain, why question it?
The concept bears believability by tapping into human insecurities, rather than technological possibilities. By not dating itself, Samantha represents the medium as a whole – not just Facebook and Twitter, but the next products in the social media factory. Jonze pulls this off with direction that’s more restrained than his music videos or past features. In fact, the most evocative instance comes from a blacked out screen during an intimate moment; with just Samantha’s voice, the viewer is more startled than by any Hollywood sex scene.
Theodore’s sparse home is without clutter, much like his workplace that takes the cubicle layout even further with colourisation redolent of computer folders. Theodore doesn’t have DVDs and books across his floor, and it’s likely he’s compressed his possessions into data. The outdoor streets are similarly clean and ordered, like stepping onto someone else’s desktop. Samantha is an extension of that – and she’s probably programmed to never mention this uncomfortable truth.
It’s a testament to Her that the viewer shares Theodore’s discomfort when his unconventional relationship is challenged, whether the practical issues of double-dating, or a failed experiment with a human stand-in. In a parallel role, Amy (Amy Adams) runs through a similar trajectory from breakup to befriending an OS, and corroborates the software, just like the other mobile phone owners conversing with their own Samanthas.
Amy embodies a Greek chorus, as she witnesses Theodore’s progression from the outside. Eventually, she concedes that love is a “socially accepted insanity”, which is the area occupied by Samantha. Notably, Amy films her mother sleeping under the argument that people are at their most free when asleep. By shutting himself out from social obligations, Theodore finds a liberating comfort – one that takes a second to admire 86 of his old LA Weekly emails. (Compare this with Wilde’s out-of-nowhere ascertation: “You’re a really creepy guy.”
Theodore admits his marriage was largely started by the pair reading each other’s writing – a passing comment that explains much of how his psyche works; Samantha is a safe audience who creates the illusion that every word or thought can have an audience, even if it’s computer-generated and sitting in your pocket. Jonze’s moving film examines to what extent love is built upon a similar agreement, and how maybe it could work if everyone else just accepts digital love. Samantha may be programmed, but she really means it when she claims, “I’m becoming much more than what they programmed. It’s so exciting.”