Spike Jonze’s Her, his fourth feature film and first solo script, is a tweedy, beautifully offbeat and self-conscious sci-fi romance that explores the old adages of the genre with a solipsistic eye that reflects very contemporary concerns.
Set in a future Los Angeles, a seemingly kitsch and comfortable urban utopia, recently divorced Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) stumbles upon an advertisement for an artificially intelligent computer-operating system (OS) that its makers have promised is the first system to possess intuitive intelligence. Like a virtual PA/girlfriend/agony aunt, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) can understand and order (through an earpiece and his smartphone) Theodore’s thoughts at a rate unknown to himself, as well as recognise moods, tone, and other physiological tells. This not only offers him emotional stability but also creative prosperity, particularly writing letters for his work, an aptly named company called ‘BeautifulHandWrittenLetters.com’. The company’s product, much like the OS, simulates relationships but within a much older form of communication. Surprisingly (but unsurprisingly too, in a narratively obvious way) Theodore and Samantha fall deeply in love, with the film moving languidly and a tad sententiously forward as they (and we) explore the world ‘together’.
Her’s Kafkaesque fabric (much like the abstract absurdity we encounter in his previous short Scene’s from the Suburb) starts to break-apart when Theodore’s OS Samantha becomes enraptured with the idea of physicality, desiring her own vehicle of consciousness. Samantha will always remain a ‘her’ (as the title suggests) rather than a ‘she’ without it. To be able to branch the gap, she sets Theodore up on a date with a ‘surrogate’, a woman who offers her body as a service between human’s and OS couples. It is brutally uncomfortable scene with Joaquin Phoenix’s excellent performance earlier really embodying that psychological build towards an implosion of guilt that had been frothing and fermenting for days. Despite the surrogacy making perfectly objective sense, the interior/exterior barrier cannot be fused, leaving the main protagonists snatching at the fragmentary void between them.
The film winds down with Theodore’s realisation that Samantha capabilities are expanding; he soon learns she is in 641 simultaneous relationships. Not long after, she departs into what we can only guess as a higher metaphysical existence, beyond the limitations of Earth. Theodore, in desperation, coupled together with his friend Amy (Amy Adams) who’s OS has also abandoned her, like her previous physical partner.
It is in the departure of the OS’s that Jonze seems to suggest (with the dangerous wandering on the rooftops scene at the end of the film) that evolution has caught up with humans here, with the OS’s, already on a higher plane, transcending towards a more expansive existence. In some ways this is an interesting parallel with the Nietzschian idea of the superhuman, with the endgame of evolution (for the human race) being destruction. Whether or not the characters do commit suicide to destroy themselves (only gently suggested) is not clear, but it is clear that they have reached their own solipsistic limitations, with their futures looking bleak and empty.
Jonze’s Her is a cautionary tale, despite being dressed up, as he describes, in the robes of “melancholy pop”. It is in the familiarity of the film that makes this, perhaps more so than other films of the genre, worrying. In the very real world of Apple’s Siri, Google Glass and other such quasi-technological relationships, it is a future that we are working towards, one that we are already in a developing relationship with.