As the Oscar fever inside me is reaching its pitch and I have been literally gobbling down all the nominations, Spike Jonze’s Her made me pause, catch my breath and then want to write about it. While that in itself is truly something, I also felt like simply writing a review about this movie would not be enough. I’m not always very critical in my reviews as it is and you must understand this is more than just a story for me.
Set in the not-so distant future Los Angeles resembling a Shanghai skyline lives a man by the name of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) – a lonely, sombre and soulful man just trying to pull himself together after a breakup with his childhood sweetheart and wife (Rooney Mara). Theodore is a calm and thoughtful man who writes personal letters for people as a part of his job at handwrittenletters.com. At the very start it becomes clear that Theodore is unable to move on. The frequent flashes of Catherine and their happily married life together paint us a picture of how different he used to be when he was with her. Now, Theodore is heartbroken and left to his own devices with divorce papers he hasn’t been able to sign for a few months.
Her has a very futuristic feel to it. Theodore runs all his daily technological chores with the help of his phone’s operating system. Theodore seems to be spending more time with his computer and his OS and we only see him interacting with the couple in his building occasionally on the elevator. So when he comes across a new artificial intelligence operating system that is designed to evolve according to an individual’s intuitive needs and requirements, he gets pulled right in. This step sets off the dominos to the most heartwarming and heart wrenching phase of his life.
The OS offers him a choice between a male or female and he chooses a female who then introduces herself as Samantha (voiced with a sultry, breathy humanity by Scarlett Johansson). Sooner than expected Theodore finds himself awed by Samantha and the way she expresses herself. There is something particularly attractive about the way she can communicate so clearly even though she’s only an OS. She helps Theodore to get out of his rut and experience more things than he ever thought he could. Samantha is also more than just your everyday Siri in the sense that she finds herself evolving everyday in her interactions with Theodore.
This brings me to one of the scenes where Theodore-blissful and elated, is spinning around in circles with his phone in hand, just trying to grasp and absorb all the happiness and exuberance he suddenly finds in his life with Samantha. Although that moment is supposed to depict joy, a certain intimacy that is shared by two lovers in a moment, the scene also paints a picture of loneliness and isolation. For a passerby who does not understand what Theodore must feel with Samantha, he is very likely to be termed crazy. That’s funny, isn’t it?
This is also the part where my movie review drifts into other territories. What might seem crazy to someone might be a perfectly acceptable way of life for someone else. While it is easy to condemn someone’s style of living, why can’t it be easy to actually accept it? We’re in the 21st century now, and I think we have all experienced those long stretches where you sat crouched, staring down at your phone, endlessly waiting for a message from your lover, anything, a validation maybe that would get you through the day.
Let’s take it a step further. When you don’t get to see the person you love as much as you’d like and your relationship feels like it’s entirely based on messages and last seen timestamps. Is that not real then? Would you like to argue how that cannot possibly take away the essence of your love and instead enhance it in a more revitalizing way. What happens when you see someone on a computer screen on Skype or on Instagram more than you do in person, does that somehow make it ‘not real’?
Then why should we be so critical about Samantha and Theodore’s love?
The genius of this film is that there is no technical reasoning about the limits of the OS, its potential or lack of it. That in itself makes you feel that maybe, just maybe Theodore and Samantha are destined to be. You start picturing Samantha’s husky voice over the phone as a long-distance lover on the other end, as human and as real as Theodore. Amidst it all, you still know that she’s an OS and that this is a love without any kind of physical presence or confirmations.
Is that enough?
Which brings me to the part where things in your ‘not so real relationship’ have actually gotten to a point where you have met the person to whom the voice belongs. Learnt how they touch their hair, not just the side of the bed they sleep on but also the way their body curves when they do. You’ve figured that aural sex would probably never equal oral sex, and there is something deeply saddening to be able to settle for the prior after having experienced the two. You return to your life and try to focus on being together whilst you are actually apart and leading your own lives. You call them and text them just like before, but somehow 25 text messages a day do not cut the deal anymore. It’s not enough. You try your hardest to explain that it’s not that you want more of their time but you just need more of the ‘real’ thing. What is the reason for this sudden longing? Why are you being so greedy? You don’t understand but it’s an unnerving worry that doesn’t go away and is difficult to hide when you Skype with them next.
This is something that Theodore and Samantha do not face. They’re not greedy; neither do they have unreasonable expectations from each other. Theodore loves Samantha and he is happy to just have her love him back, really that is all. When Theodore’s wife accuses him of always wanting to be in a relationship without having to face the challenges of actually being in one, Theodore is thoroughly hurt. But what I love is how he has faith, he knows that whether human or not, Samantha understands and it’s futile to ponder over what someone else thinks of them. Just like a normal relationship, they experience highs and lows, bouts of jealousy, passion and desire. Samantha does her very best to make Theodore feel at ease with the complicated relationship they have, Samantha makes it look so easy, that it somehow makes you wish your life could be so convenient.
As we all know in our deepest selves, stories like these will always have a tinge of sadness and soon enough things go sour and Theodore’s fantasy comes undone. It is heartbreaking to watch him disintegrate like that, for the second time. It is undeniably as real a breakup as he had with Catherine. He ultimately turns to his friend living in the adjacent apartment who also seems to have gone through something similar. What they share in that last scene, it is not some kind of glimpse into them getting together in the probable future, they share their pain. They are both intensely aware of their heart being mangled inside out and need some kind of reassurance that they are not insane. It is not a plea for human touch but at the same time, it underlines the fact that reality, tangibility will always be constant in the face of fantasy. Which made me think that maybe happiness, love, vulnerability are more closely linked to a certain kind of spirituality, an introspection, too. Maybe what you think is going to make you happy doesn’t necessarily need to have a physical form or structure. The intricacies of your lover can exist entirely in your head and still satisfy you if you truly trust yourself and what you want. I’m also not saying that will end well.
I suspect many people will see this movie as some sort of satire, a kind of deliberate mocking at our progressively technological lives which culminates in alienation from human touch and emotions. At the same time, the movie expands on the various aspects of social interactions as well and why sometimes disappointments and continuous failed attempts at trying to reach out to another human being could lead to us moving towards something less unpredictably volatile.
The movie does such a beautiful and delicate job at pulling us into the minds of its characters and what defines them. We are so accustomed to watching a love story with a cinematic feel to it, waiting for what will be the next move. Spike Jonze’s Her has stirred a revolution in the kind of care that is exhibited in showcasing human nature and its complexity. There is a scene where Samantha asks Theodore in complete innocence,”How do you share your life with someone?” and this question attempts to be answered throughout the movie. In an age of information overshare and also the convenience with which we can select what to share online and what to conceal, what is it like really sharing your life with another person? In that sense, whether it has a futuristic take or not, whether or not you watch Her 20 years later or even right now, it is in many ways timeless.