A poignant and deeply heartbreaking exploration of the many facets of falling in love, and of the reasons we give ourselves for accepting counterfeit love in an ever-changing world of instant connection and growing loneliness.
I rarely find myself at a loss for words when I come to review a film.
I have no idea where to begin, as Spike Jonze’ beautifully-crafted her just raises so many questions (refusing to give its opinion on many), leaving it up to the viewer to wrestle through what they just saw onscreen. Strangely, this “science-fiction” story of a man who falls in love with his computer’s operating system does not feel all that science-fictiony.
her takes place in what Director Spike Jonze likes to call the “slight future,” focusing on the melancholy and withdrawn Theodore Twombly, a love letter ghostwriter for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com. Despite his penchant for crafting intimately moving letters for others (who must either be too lazy, too busy, or not creative enough to write their own), his own love life is another story. Lonely and reserved, Theodore is still reeling from a separation from a woman he loved but slowly grew apart from. When a new technology called the OS1 is announced, Theodore quickly purchases the revolutionary software that evolves as it comes to learn more about its user.
Theodore’s new Operating Software, Samantha, comes to know all about him: coaching him, encouraging him, and helping him organize his life. She reminds him of his appointments, teaches him skills, and urges him to try new things.
Hungry for companionship, Theodore embraces her wholeheartedly.
So much of this film rests squarely on Joaquin Phoenix’s shoulders. His work here is astounding. Whereas any other film would cut back and forth between two main characters talking to one another, the camera rests simply on Phoenix as he speaks with the intangible Samantha. Scarlett Johansson’s work here also cannot be diminished, as she breathes so much life into Theodore’s operating system that its sometimes hard to believe that she’s not actually real. her is also incredibly gorgeous to look at, and brilliantly pulls us in to what it must be like to live in this not-so-distant future.
What Makes Love ‘Real’?
Within its two hours, her wants us to believe that it’s not only possible– but plausible— for a man to fall in love with his highly-intelligent (even sentient) computer. Could a “relationship” survive on a purely mental level? Are Theodore’s feelings of love for his cognizant computer actually legitimate?
The film raises many interesting questions such as this. What starts as a simple “man falls in love with Siri” love story quickly evolves into a study on the nature of humanity and emotion (and whether or not artificial intelligence can share those traits). What’s stopping him from running headfirst into a romantic relationship with this artificially-intelligent “woman?”
Towards its conclusion, the film quickly turns into unexpected territory, as Samantha simply finds herself unsatisfied with the relationship as she grows in knowledge, intelligence, and ability. Her “love” for him turns to pity for a lesser being. Theodore, once promised a constant companion and lover in the form of Samantha, must now learn to cope when she moves on. She is the one who breaks his heart. Technology, again, cannot eradicate loneliness.
Theodore grows more and more disconnected from the surrounding world as he spends all his time with Samantha. A heartbreaking scene towards the end of film shows countless subway riders lost in conversations with their personal OS’es, oblivious to the world around them. Even earlier when Theodore goes on a date with an actual human woman, it’s clear he’d rather be back at home with his gadget.
For all the lighthearted moments, deep reflections, and clarity the main character finds by the time the film ends, I can’t help but view her as a deeply sad film.
Theodore Twombly is a profoundly lonely man who turns to artificial love in the wake of past heartbreaks and disappointments. Clinging to a counterfeit “love” that seems to promise authentic intimacy without the responsibilities and heartaches that come with human relationships, Theodore embraces Samantha’s affections. But it is a selfish love. her is in many ways a modern parable for our porn-saturated generation. Much like the empty promises of pornography, Samantha can never truly satisfy his desires. A hard, messy, beautiful relationship with a real, broken, human woman with real emotions can be scary. Samantha, on the other hand (at least at first), always tells him what he wants to hear. Much like Theodore does for his clients with his love letters.
It should be noted that, as Theodore searches for passion and love in his lonely life, her depicts a few of the moments he tries to fulfill his “intimate” desires: once with a random stranger through phone sex, and another time in a similar fashion with Samantha. Neither gratuitous or salacious, though, the scenes are actually very sad and show how he has replaced true passionate love in his life with the counterfeit.
Theodore tries his best to fill the emptiness he admits to feeling daily with quick “encounters” on online chat rooms, and later with his relationship with Samantha. Even a slightly graphic scene (heard only) in which Theodore and Samantha “make love” is contrasted to his earlier trysts online, but still feels entirely hollow. This deeply broken man is looking for love, but continues to search in empty cisterns instead of full wells.
In the end, her does not give us much in the way of answers to the questions it raises. Viewers may err on either side of many arguments it poses, wondering where the future of artificial intelligence lies, how artificial “relationships” are damaging our real ones, whether technology is ultimately a blessing or a curse, or whether “love” for an immaterial being can in fact be authentic. But her never wanted to give us the answers. It wanted us to think about them.
+ Raises many questions that will stick with you
+ Beautiful cinematography
+ Career-defining performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson
+ Full of wisdom on the state of modern relationships
+ Creative soundtrack from Arcade Fire
her is one of the most thought-provoking and profound movies in years. It is not perfect, but it challenges us and causes plenty of discussion. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson wonderfully bring Spike Jonze’s odd love story to life, offering much wisdom on the state of modern relationships. Both a study of falling in love for the wrong reasons, as well as a clever exploration of technology’s power to ruin our relationships, her delivers an artistic, intriguing look at the mess of romance and relating to others.
her is rated R for “language and sexual content.” The language is intermittent, including from a video game character (who is shown, I believe, as an example of how some “entertainment” is becoming offensive just for offensiveness’ sake).
The sexual content comes in the form of Theodore’s encounter on a phone sex line, and a scene where he and Samantha pretend to make love to one another (it is heard only). An email Theodore receives also shows a quick glimpse of pregnant, nude woman covering her sensitive areas. For those who can tolerate it, most of the sexual content in her is not meant to shock or titillate, but to show Theodore’s depravity and his longing for intimacy.
Though I would not classify the film as overly offensive, it is definitely not for kids, as less mature viewers will misinterpret many of the moments in the film, and also simply because of the very serious questions her explores. Adults only.
© Matt Tory, 2013.