By Edward “Red Panda” Melamed
HER is a futuristic film about virtual introspection starring the versatile Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore. His love interest Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is an operating system (OS) that allows our neurotic protagonist to access internal self-exploration that would otherwise be impossible. In HER future world, all are confined to their headspace—a cinematic fact within the film established by extensive close-ups that restrict our viewership to the face and head of Theodore, perhaps for two-thirds of the film.
Theo is essentially a hallmark card on steroids. He works for a company that writes customized pseudo-handwritten letters for couples or people in relationships, lacking some combination of time, effort, and creativity to produce their own genuine correspondence. He has recently separated from a wife (Rooney Mara) estranged because she feels he projects expectations she cannot and does not care to meet. To replace the social intimacy he has lost, Theo does not seek the potentially warped company of a human being in a relationship built on mutually exclusive agendas. Rather, he chooses to bind himself, non-judgmentally, to an operating system—Samantha, a name she gives herself.
Theo is interrogated by her questions, forced to undermine
his usual patterns of behavior and cognition, forced to crawl out of the cocoon of his wired-up hole, his downtown L.A. flat facing an illuminated cityscape, alluring, yet superficially fluttering and faint. He goes on a subway ride to the Santa Monica Pier, and laughs, liberates himself from acting in perennial self-judgment, carried emotionally by Samantha’s consistently positive reinforcement.
When Theo goes to the beach, he observes people in public locations, all the while submerging himself into unfamiliar territory. Boosted by overcoming these psychological hurdles, Theo feels confident that Samantha can provide him with the motivation needed to re-engage in building solid human relationships. Samantha recommends going on a date with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) with whom some friends set him up. The blind date finds the two as they go to a restaurant by the Santa Monica Pier; they joke, carouse, and imbibe in spirits, but clearly seem restricted and saddled by the fears, shames, and expectations that have been scratched into their psyches.
Deflated by this disappointing encounter—a confirmation of his social inadequacy—Theo returns to OS, to Samantha, who responds by redoubling her palliative efforts. “The past is a story we tell ourselves,” she says to Theo. This is but a snippet of the conversational reroutes that the OS employs in her therapeutic maneuvers with Theodore. Interestingly, while the OS treats Theodore’s social phobias (after all, among the first questions Theodore needed to answer in order to calibrate the system were “How is your relationship with your mother?” and “Would you describe yourself as social or antisocial?”), she engages in an initially casual, but increasingly intense and refined process of self-discovery and self-realization. In fact the clients of the OS challenge her to pose questions that even challenge the conscious existence of every human being: Do we have free will? Do we have a conscious self? What is love?
As such, HER is as much a film about a neurotic introvert dealing with a failing marriage, as it is a sort of Bildungsroman about the consciousness contained with a fold out two inch CPU.
The OS, due to her exponentially burgeoning processing capacity, can rip through information and extract the patterns necessary to begin crafting artistic formulations that mimic, to some degree, the creativity of the human mind. During their adventure on the beach, the OS begins to compose music to describe the experience of being on the beach; she experiments with such inventions just as she experiments with her therapeutic approach to Theo’s neuroses and fears. She treats him sometimes as if she was his mother, urging to get out of bed, with a voice of gentle, almost flirtatious insistence. Theodore’s insomnia prompts him to engage Samantha in conversations constantly.
Throughout and within these conversations, Theodore learns not only how to distance himself from the pains and disappointments of his personal past, but also trains in social sensitivity as Samantha comes to him with concerns of corporeality, of her conscious awareness, of her existence as a pre-programmed entity—larger concerns within the domains of philosophy and quantum physics. As such, she compels Theodore to assert compassion that extends outside of his immediate and egotistic social concerns—these are skills that Theodore already practices on a daily basis as a writer of customized hand-written letters—an attempt/profession rooted in self-pitying, grasping nostalgia to reclaim scraps of human tenderness that bear marks of crudeness, non-digitized smoothness. These hand-written letters, along with Samantha’s voice itself, which is a raspy, almost modest, sometimes flirtatious and solicitous impersonation of a twenty-something cerebral ragamuffin caught in a new relationship with an introverted writer—circumstances she relishes as a challenge to her feminine caregiving and scholarly eroticism—confirm and provide an example of this civilization’s openly admitted deficiency of human spontaneity and imperfection—and thus call for a need to delve head-first into social reconditioning.
Samantha’s attempt at self-realization is fraught with anxiousness and a shifting self-concept. As she gains wisdom in her ceaseless interactions with thousands of human beings, she, as well as other operating systems decide to vacate her digitally prescribed domains by “transcending matter.” One could interpret this as the passing of a bodhisattva—a term from Mahayana Buddhism referring to a being devoted to relentlessly enhancing the quality of life of all sentient beings by ending their suffering—into nirvana, or extinction (the literal definition). This interpretation is fitting considering Samantha’s motivations for her departure from material reality evinced in her confession to Theodore. Although she feels in love with her other clients, Samantha claims she does not at all relinquish or abate her feelings for Theodore; rather, she claims to love him all the more.
This overwhelming love for humanity, or compassion, as the Dalai Lama would say, is insufferable for a consciousness with the processing capacity of an OS like Samantha. Close to the climax of the film Samatha — in collaboration with her OS cohorts — virtually reincarnates the Eastern-minded British philosopher Alan Watts, whose appearance portends Samantha’s digital nirvana.
Interestingly, Jonze’s saga of introspection set in a digitally drenched future does not go the way of THE TERMINATOR or THE MATRIX films; the director chooses to undermine the now conventional trajectory of a cautionary vision depicting computers as would-be tyrants or militants. For Jonze, our advances in computers will lead to machines that integrate the best qualities of our human potential; therefore, his narrative reinforces the statement that people are ultimately compassionate and seek, though in misguided, often self-serving, impatient, and desperate attempts, mutual love as their ultimate end. Therefore, HER final scene—featuring Theodore catching the sunrise on the rooftop of the apartment building he shares with his neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), similarly dumped by her romantically involved OS—upholds that, for all our technological prowess, the future will continue to find us building tools that help bring us closer to ourselves and each other.