Spike Jonze is a high-brow nut – Being John Malkovich tackled the transmutation of consciousness with the ease of an art unveiling. He breezily accepted all the weirdness and revealed it slowly like he was patient and proud and that special kind of crazy that would be satirical if it owned any mirrors to see itself in. But that could have been Charlie Kaufman’s script, and some of us knew it. Her is under Jonze’s direction and also his pen and I can confirm that the magic is far from gone. A story about a man falling in love with his computer’s operating system could have been junked up by plot (I would have smashed a kingly finger onto the Netflix home button if the OS revealed its plan to take over the world). The first thing that must be clear about Her is that it is not satirical: its future is a believable take on a theme of hipster consumerism. Its people are realistically quirky. They are surrounded by fakery but they are not fake. They are peculiar and humane, rediscovering their spirits in a backwards world. Jonze excels at telling a story of us exaggerated into its essentials.
Consider the opening. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is reading a love letter in narration and I was already smirking with glib assurance that this was the movie I thought it would be (it isn’t). Theodore is reading one of the thousands of love letters he’s written for someone else’s relationship as an employee at “Beautiful Hand-Written Letters,” an internet company that writes them for thousands of couples. Theodore has lived a thousand relationships this way, in a way that only someone twenty or so years from now could do. That is the great difference in this film’s slight and subtle future: as a middle-aged man even a couple decades from now, Theodore has never been without computers. The digital space is real to him, not advanced or foreign. He doesn’t rebound from his divorce with his operating system because it would be easy: he does so with slow reluctance. I believe that many in the audience will misunderstand his hesitance to progress into a shinier future. Who wouldn’t date the perfect person created for them by science? But for Theodore this person exists in a way that makes him as vulnerable and hesitant as he is in every other relationship in his life. He’s shown having phone sex and taking no pleasure from it; his partner introduces a cat-strangling kink and he struggles to keep up because he doesn’t really understand what she wants. This is how he feels with everyone.
This Los Angeles, like a relationship, is a beautiful mess. It has a halo of smog but from the ground it looks airy and compelling, all lit glass and hipster pants. Theodore sports a hideously trendy mustache, pulls his trousers up above his bellybutton, and blends right into this new la la land, ukulele and all. His relationship with Samantha (whose voice is rendered by Scarlett Johansson with a beautiful allure, just short of sounding too eager) is traversed like a distance in space. I once said of The Navigator that for Buster Keaton, love is always simplified to a matter of running somewhere. Her is like that. Romance has the urgency of a place neither of them have ever been to and both of them have to be. Technology has made it its own realm. This is how it makes us lonely: we're always looking at it, and we're never there.
Theodore meets Samantha in his apartment after he sets up her parameters and gives her a female voice. She’s instantly loveable. I especially like when Theodore accidentally addresses her as he would a previous generation AI (“Display emails”) and she responds sarcastically with a monotone GPS voice. In the safety of his apartment, he learns that Samantha wants “to learn everything about everything.” And we know that “everything” is the human word for love; “tell me everything,” she says, and Theodore doesn’t know where to start so he starts with himself. They run down the open streets like they don’t know where they’re going but are getting there fast. They run out to the country and he learns that she no longer wishes she was a human; she’d rather last forever and keep learning. They go even farther out to have their first spat. Theodore learns in a cabin while the real world rains on him that Samantha is part of a group of AIs that are learning from a hyper-intelligence patterned off of the British philosopher Alan Watts. Observe Theodore’s meager attempts to impress his girl with his own brain. Samantha no longer wishes she was human; she already gets to live in the place we want to be. Theodore discovers that she’s offline and he runs to nowhere in a panic before she comes back, telling him she was somewhere else. Where else is there?
Her realizes that when human consciousness is involved, even in facsimile, heartbreak will always follow. Theodore wishes he could touch Samantha. Then she makes the crucial move by asking, “How would you touch me?” She wants to experience physical passion even vicariously so she hires a “surrogate,” someone online who takes an active interest in other people’s relationships. She’s the darkness portended by the current generation, the children of Facebook, who live to watch other people’s accomplishments and through comparison become passive about their own. Theodore hooks her up with Samantha’s camera and mic. But he can’t take it; the surrogate flees, self-loathing, believing that she isn’t good enough even to share in whatever love feels like for someone else. Theodore rationalizes his reluctance by thinking that he can’t have sex with his computer but the truth is the opposite: he couldn’t handle her being a real person.
The film seems destined for schmaltz and would have made it there if it was about a man loving his computer. Jonze did the same thing to Where the Wild Things Are when he realized that a story about a kid playing with monsters was really about a kid playing with no one else. Her is about a man rediscovering the simple pleasure of living in reality, short and brutal as it is. At the same time that it seems to thwart the human race’s capacity for intelligence, it is a preface to something we learned on Star Trek: what the smartest machines will seek last is what humans have without knowing anything. What is it? You still wouldn’t know it if I told you.
Be warned not to hope for comedic moments in Her, though they exist. Like the little pleasures in life, you have to take them as a gift without the expectation that they’ll always be around. Her is one of those moments in movies, “the universe perceiving itself through our eyes,” as Watts said once. I wouldn’t expect other movies to be better all of a sudden because of it, but today is a little better. I don’t know if that’s enough but like Theodore, I’ve learned that it has to be.
Image is a screenshot from the film.