Her is one of those multi-layered films that linger in the mind long after you’ve finished watching. On first look, it seems like a science-fiction technology centred film about a lonely man going through divorce who develops feelings for his newly purchased artificial intelligence operating system. It is all those things, but also an incredibly thoughtful look at modern relationships, the boundaries of love and feeling, alienation, what it means to be alive (do you need to have a body to be alive?), and the capacity of love to change and nurture.
Joaquín Phoenix is excellent as Theodore, a slightly awkward, sensitive, and perceptive man going through a divorce. He works as a writer at a place where people compose and write letters for other people to give to their family, friends, and significant others (the implication being that these people are pretending they wrote the letters). He is extremely self-deprecating about his work, downplaying his efforts, even when his colleague (played by a humorous and awkward Chris Pratt) compliments him on his beautiful letters. It becomes obvious that he has lost a lot of self confidence and is unsure of his direction in life.
So, when he purchases what is hailed as the first intelligent artificial intelligence operating system on a whim, it programs itself according to what it thinks he needs, although he does pick a female voice (perhaps he find this friendlier, or it points to his subconscious need for connection). Far from being a tool that Theodore could just use to his own ends, the OS chooses her own name, learns about the world around her and human relationships, and develops a personality of her own (Scarlett Johansen is excellent as Samantha). This is a complicated relationship – she makes him feel alive to new possibilities and more aware of how wonderful life truly is, whilst he helps her understand what it means to be human, sentient, and to feel.
Many questions arise from this kind of relationship. In the beginning, Samantha is desperate to experience life as a physical being. She wants to know the weight of a body, the way it feels to touch things, what it feels like being in the world. There is a claustrophobia, thinking of a sentient being confined to a certain space, believing that the human world is superior to her own world. She eventually grows to accept herself, going through the human stages of self-actualisation and self-acceptance, and eventually transcending that altogether (though I won’t give away what happens).
The complications in the relationship – Theodore’s need to define and categorise the relationship, and how unusual he feels it is – are dealt with deeply enough for us to feel the ambiguity and tension. It would be, I feel, unusual and highly complicated, not to mention confusing, to have a relationship, whether platonic or intimate, with an OS, or a being with artificial intelligence. It raises questions of boundaries and what that means for human relationships. The film treats this well, with ambiguity but also by redefining the spectrum of relationships to include Theodore’s and Samantha’s.
It also made me think a lot about how we define human relationships and love. Everything that could happen in a relationship happens with Theodore and Samantha – the initial getting-to-know-you stage, the physical and emotional discovery, intimacy, teamwork, experiencing the world together, arguments and conversation, jealousy and forgiveness, even trips away. Other people’s reactions are a little more difficult to swallow, particularly his ex-wife’s – she accuses him of being unable to handle ‘real’ emotions when he tells her about his new relationship. This is the crux of the matter – the question of whether if we feel something, doesn’t that make it real to us? Feelings are complicated and intense, and Samantha unlocks something within Theodore that he was unable to fully feel within his marriage.
His growth, and Samantha’s, is what makes this such an interesting and affecting film. Love changes you, whether for good or bad. It teaches us things, and allows us to explore the range of human emotion. I loved this film, and I would recommend it to anyone, even if you don’t enjoy science fiction – in fact, the style of the film is less like futuristic sci-fi and more like a 1950s or 1970s film, with a beautiful vintage tint.
‘The heart’s not like a box that gets filled up. It expands in size the more you love.’ – from Her, a Spike Jonze film.