Well over fifty years ago, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers wondered in song, “Why do fools fall in love?” This is a questioned that has vexed poets, philosophers, and neuroscientists for millennia. Although Spike Jonze, in his marvelous new film Her, doesn’t have an answer, it takes an intriguing new angle at the question.
Set in the near future, the film concerns Theodore Twombly, an everyman sort, though an unrepentant romantic. His very job is writing letters for those who can’t write them themselves (they are advertised as handwritten, but of course are just printed in a cursive font). He is still getting over the dissolution of his marriage to the fragile Rooney Mara, and getting along as best as he can.
Then he gets a new operating system for his computer. After answering a few questions, the most prominent being on his relationship with his mother, his system is online. It has a female voice, calls herself Samantha, and sounds like Scarlett Johansson.
I can only imagine Jonze got the idea from the prevalence of artificial intelligence in our lives that have anthropomorphic voices, mostly female, like Siri or Garmin. What would happen if these systems were so complex that they became sentient–would they be capable of feeling emotions? Would they be capable of loving? Could they be loved? While some may be reminded of the dark side of this equation, with HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was reminded of an early Kurt Vonnegut story, “Epicac,” in which a computer is programmed to write love sonnets, becomes self-aware, realizes it is in love and that that love can not be returned, and shuts itself off.
Her is a lovely, melancholy, and extremely thought-provoking film. As Twombly, played with nerdish intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, realizes he is in love with his operating system, we are along on the journey, piecing it out whether it is crazy or not. Samantha, as voiced by Johannson, is not a person, but aside from corporeality provides Phoenix with everything he needs. She even tries to add physicality to the mix, hiring a surrogate to stand in for her during lovemaking, in a scene that is exquisitely creepy. Most people in Phoenix’s life, like his best friend (Amy Adams) don’t find anything wrong with it–he even goes on a double date with a co-worker, three people and a smartphone sitting on a picnic blanket.
It is notable that only Mara that calls him on the essential problem–dating a computer program is avoiding the complexities of a romance between two human beings.
There are many reasons to like this film, among them the production design by K.K. Barrett and costume design by Casey Storm. This film is set in the future, but not so far that we have to endure jumpsuits and jet-packs. In fact, despite the technology, the film has a retro look to it. Phoenix’s high-waist pants have been most remarked on, but it does have a 1950s feel to it.
But the most remarkable thing about the film is the script, and the way the plot unfolds. It could have ended in any number of Twilight Zone-like twists, but I’m glad that everyone I thought was coming did not, thus being a film smarter than me. Twombly’s character is not written as a stock sad sack, and the implications of the romance are explored in a number of ways that are fascinatingly played out.
What is perhaps most depressing about the film is that this is the way we are headed. In the film, crowds of people walk to work, ear buds firmly in place, talking to unseen systems, oblivious to their surroundings. Her, while a film dripping with romance, posits a very lonely planet in the future.
My grade for Her: A-.