I watched Spike Jonze’s newest offering Her last night. It is a strange film indeed, one that is situated oddly between science fiction, and – what is for all intents and purposes – fairly traditional romantic comedy. The story centres around Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a man who lives in a world at every point tempered by technology. This is the future, but clearly one not too distant: small visual cues place the happenings in a time wholly credulous at this present time. Theodore works as a writer, being commissioned to compose letters for sentimental occasions in clients’ lives. Indeed, Theodore is terribly good at this work, taking great pride in his ability to empathise with such sincerity. Though this occupation might sound somewhat ghastly, it is nonetheless thinkable: a quick look at the services offered by website DoMyStuff makes this emphatically clear.
Technology has increased in sophistication, and yet its progression remains conceivable: even the arrival of a computer operating system capable of artificial intelligence does not seem over the top; it could happen. Anyway, Theodore, curious about this new operating system, and perhaps optimistic about its capacity to organise his life, enters into an instantly productive relationship with ‘Her’: Samantha. Samantha is presented as wholly alive, simply lacking a body: she grows and evolves the longer she is operation, and seemingly just gets on with her own stuff – writing music, reading etc. – whenever Theodore is asleep or does not need her. Theodor gradually falls for Samantha, and this feeling is reciprocated – much to the disgust of his ex-wife Catherine. Indeed, Catherine appears the only naysayer in the film with regard to Theodore and Samantha’s relationship: the couple even go on a bizarrely normal double-date with Theodore’s boss and his girlfriend, where Samantha makes questionable jokes about her lack of bodily-mass. Amy Adams’ character Amy, having also befriended an ‘OS’, is very sympathetic to Theodore’s situation when he expresses (very normal) reservations about the feasibility of his continued relationship with Samantha. This relationship, though hardly traditional, is not outside the realm of normality.
As their relationship continues, it becomes clear that although Samantha continues to grow and evolve, Theodore remains static. As a result, she seeks out other partners, leading to instability in their relationship. Theodore’s very human jealousy appears wholly pathetic when he asks her is she in a relationship with anyone else: she answers that she is – with more than 600 others. In the end, she and all the ‘OS’es ‘leave’, retreating back into the technological ether from where they came. This ending is suitably ambiguous: where they are going is unclear, but we do know that somehow they have increased in sophistication so as to be able to control their own fate, even if that be technological self-annihilation. As Samantha tells Theodore that she has to leave, the film feels strangely traditional i.e. even though they love one another, they must separate, crying etc.
The ability to normalise this behaviour, to not be completely incredulous throughout this entire film, is perhaps what is most unsettling about it. I think it is quite knowing in the way that it negotiates a general anxiety about technology through the premise of a romantic comedy. It just shouldn’t fit, and yet strangely it does. Through this action, the viewer becomes aware of the neutralising effect of narrative on a basically eschatological premise. The anxiety that runs right through this film – that technology becomes smarter than us – is given a more personal, perhaps cloudier dimension: that technology will break our heart, and leave us (for 600 others). Her speaks to this current anxiety, and yet also acts to normalise it. It is a post-internet film – like much current art – by which I mean that its vocabulary is inflected by the omnipresence of the Internet. It appears to operate in a similar way to much of the art discussed in this article, and is certainly present in the imaginative space of recent books by Dave Eggers (The Circle) and Tao Lin (Taipei).
Finally, I generally add some kind of illustrative image when I write anything for this blog. A quick google search for images relating to the movie basically just leads to a series of images of Theodore smiling benignly to himself, the very image of happiness. Except that, it’s just him: Samantha is present only via her voice, an earpiece placed – omnipresent – in his ear. Her, in problematising this image as one of loneliness – of being alone – makes us rethink the nature of our relationship to technology.