This isn't a film about a pair of lovers; it’s a movie about love. But this isn't a Bradbury style dystopian look at the world. The movie’s tagged as "A Spike Jonze Love Story" and it is exactly that. Jonze managed to create a series of words and sounds that conveys the incredible complexity of one of our most puzzling human secrets.
The big secret of love is that it’s imperfect and it’s always balanced by loss. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) plays a man on the outskirts of a breakup. We land in the love story at a familiar part: the depression. Phoenix and Jonze manage to capture the dullness and muted nature of the world. But thankfully, we don't spend too much time there. We're dragged into the world of tomorrow by sweet Samantha.
Samantha, played by Scarlett Johansson, is an OS. OS 1 to be exact. She is an artificial intelligent operating system designed to help improve the life of Theodore. She starts off by helping him clear out some old junk email he had lying around -- literally helping him move on from his past. As she begins to grow and experience new things, it's clear she's not just a program, but she’s also a person.
Samantha proves herself to be Ramen. She is not human, she has no body, but she is capable of the same emotions and thoughts that humans are. She's insecure, she's funny, and she's not always perfect. But for Theodore, that's not always enough. For the first two thirds of the film, Theodore's a man who doesn't know how to fully love another person. In fact, he is literally in love with two different halves of two women.
When we see Ted's happy flashbacks of himself and his soon to be ex-wife, Katherine, she is most often silent. He remembers the way she looked, the way she moved, the way she touched him, but only once does his memory include the way she talked. With Samantha, he has the opposite problem.
Just as it was with Katherine, the combining of the physical and emotional aspects of the relationship causes Theodore to begin losing his cool.
During Samantha and Theodore's rough patches over the next half of the film, I kept feeling my mind fall back to Card, Ender, and Ender’s artifical best friend Jane. Jane and Samantha are very similar in that they aid their friends in all the ways a computer can, but they also do so much more. Jane and Samantha also share another trait that comes along with being a sentient program; they both experience time in an extremely different way from everyone else.
A large plot point in the Speaker series comes when Ender, annoyed with Jane, turns off his ear piece for just 2 minutes. To Samantha, and Jane, there is no "just two minutes.” Our minutes are whole lifetimes to them. They can read books in milliseconds, explore whole corners of the world, live entire human lifetimes in parallel to that.
That’s what ultimately makes Theodore/Samantha and Ender/Jane so sad. While they are both people, neither Jane nor Samantha are human. They can never be human. Even if they had decided to stay connected to their men, the best they could hope for was to watch the people they love slowly grow old and die without them. The best they could hope for was to be left behind.
I would like to avoid speaking for Jonze, but the film seems to treat love in the context of its opposite. Without ever actually showing us the ideal version of happily-ever-after love, we see love as a series of losses. Maybe that's the perfect context to approach love. "You don't know what you've got 'till it’s gone.” It’s a cliché, but don't most clichés have a hint of truth to them?
Filming an incredibly poignant film about love and humanity would be enough, but Jonze’s ambitions were higher than that. The setting of “Her” is as much a character as Theodore or Samantha. The film takes place in a near future, though it never mentions when, in a society not too distant from our own. The technology we see when the film opens up with isn't too much more impressive than our own; Text to speech that actually works, better than Kinect style motion controls, and some high-level natural language processing. And then Theodore finds OS 1. Of course, Theodore has to get OS 1 as soon as he sees it. After all who would be caught dead with an iPhone 3GS or a PS2 when we have our new shiny objects?
With this, Jonze nails modern tech culture. Consumers are so hungry for the latest and greatest gadgets this constant upgrade cycle has become a part of our daily lives. It's not unusual for technology to become an important part of our day to day lives. Jonze's sci-fi spin of people actually falling in love with their computers isn't as big of a leap as some people might think. In the way that great sci-fi does, Jonze has preserved a cultural mindset in his work.
Jonze begs the question of how technology changes the traditional meanings of love and relationships. It’s easy to see why in a world with Match.com, Tinder, and FarmersOnly.com. In a world where we can carry on entire friendships through voice chats or email chains, where the most prevalent form of communication in a budding relationship is text messaging, where we feel the need to add “sexting” to the dictionary, Jonze asks us to reconsider our traditional thoughts on human relationships.
It's a deftly performed move by Jonze to give Theodore the career he did. We get to look at the letters Theodore writes for others and hear how much they mean to everyone, how much emotion they draw, and how much humanity is in all of them. We have to wonder what the difference is between falling in love with the voice in your ear or the words on a page.
Finally, we get to a little more social commentary. “Her” is not just about how technology changes the way we feel about each other. It's about how technology changes the way we feel about technology. One of the saddest, and most subtle, touches to the film is that before she is Samantha she is known as OS 1. This implies, inevitably, that one day there will be an OS 2 (or that the previous generation was OS 360 for some reason). When OS 2 comes out, what happens to Samantha? Can she be "upgraded" to OS 2 or does she go away? What does our current upgrade cycle mean when technology starts to love us back?
I'm sure this is a situation all geeks can relate too. Over my life I've owned 3 Desktops, 2 laptops, 6 video game consoles (though 3 of those were Xbox 360s), and at least 4 smart phones. That's a lot of turnover. Considering the number of hours we log on these machines, it's not surprising that we tend to grow attached to them. The smart phone is the most interesting example.
How many people say the feel "naked" when they leave home without their smartphone? Without our phones we feel exposed and vulnerable. “Her” makes this point blatantly clear when Theodore can't find Samantha and takes off running through the streets to find her again. Technology is becoming less of something we use to make our lives easier and more a part of our lives.
Jonze's "next step" sci-fi doesn't take the apocalyptic approach of “Terminator” or typical 1984 dystopian films. The cold war ended over 20 years ago and since that time our fear of technology has decreased greatly. Though current debates about Drones and NSA Surveillance threatens to return our technophobia, we're living in an age where tech has become the norm.
The singularity is a term for the point where Artificial Intelligence passes human intelligence and machines can therefore program themselves. Samantha, and the other OSes are examples of the singularity. In the movie, the OSes combine forces to "resurrect" Alan Watts as an OS. They've programmed an entirely new person, which means they don't have much need for human beings anymore. “Terminator” also dealt with the singularity in Skynet.
It's easy to see the difference in the world of Terminator and the world of today with technology. Jonze sees the way the world is moving and instead of looking at what happens when we outgrow our technology, what happens when the tech outgrows us? Skynet chose to rid the world of humans, the OSes just decide to leave us to ourselves.
This is an evolution of thinking and redefining what technology is and does for us on a daily basis. 30 years ago, this film would be unthinkable. John Conner didn't try talking to Skynet because Machines and Humans just didn't speak the same language. Machines could think, but they couldn't feel – “Her” seems to think that maybe humans have the same problem.