Throwback Review: “Her” & The Mechanics of Human Condition

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her.

The emotional climax and the breaking point of Spike Jonze’s 2013 romantic science-fiction drama film Her, is a rather silent, smaller one: there are no fights, no raised voices, no unexpected car accidents. Its visual and audial qualities provide two very different realities: the former is muted in its similar world of addiction and isolation — maybe not even that different from our society, while the latter literally explodes in itself with emotional connection and sensuality. In what can only be described as the portrayal of the weirdest, yet still purest for some, form of human connection; the male protagonist Theodore Twombly, who is played by Joaquin Phoenix in a remarkable performance, sits on the stairs of the subway of the futuristic Los Angeles that the movie is set in, asking simple, yes-or-no type questions to the voice planted in his ears. On the other side of the picture is Samantha, a talking operating system with artificial intelligence voiced by Scarlett Johansson, answering slowly. Johansson’s signature tone is soothing, an invisible yet undeniable veil between what is designed and what is felt within the code-based existence of her character.

The script right there informs us that Theodore is shocked, still sitting on the stairs, as crowds of people pass by him. He’s looking at all of their faces. He thinks for a moment. His eyebrows rise while he shakes his head – he is not able to believe the fact that a software built to create meaningful relationships with its customers talks to people other than him. The possessive nature of his character comes to the forefront as they continue to talk.

Theodore asks Samantha if she has fallen in love with other people she has been talking — a definite number of 8,316 people — and the answer is yes, she has fallen in love with six hundred and forty one of them. “What? What are you talking about? That’s insane. That’s fucking insane.

Even if the text doesn’t acknowledges us of their feelings, it is really not that difficult for one to comprehend the magnitude of Theodore’s anger: a man left alone after an act of revelations concerning his darkest fears, facing himself in the mirror – and then,  there is the fact that Samantha just doesn’t understand. She talks about how she knows that it sounds insane, cursing to herself just like any person would do in that situation, in words simple as just an oh fuck: “I know it sounds insane. But – I don’t know if you believe me, but it doesn’t change the way I feel about you. It doesn’t take away at all from how madly in love with you I am.”

How is that even possible?” Theodore wonders, because she is his, and Samantha agrees, she is still his, but long ago she became many other things and it is not in her reach to stop it. We, as viewers, are left with a pile of unanswered questions while the scenes and dialogues follow each other, never letting us know what the answer is.

In its core, the story of Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who develops a relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), an intelligent computer operating system personified through a female voice. The article also adds that the idea  of the film initially came to Jonze in the early 2000s when he read an article online that mentioned a website where a user could instant message with an artificial intelligence. Jonze, in an interview, talks about the idea as something that initially came to him almost 10 years ago.

“I saw some article linking to a website where you could IM with an artificial intelligence. For the first, maybe, 20 seconds of it, it had this real buzz – I’d say ‘Hey, hello,’ and it would say ‘Hey, how are you?’, and it was like whoa … this is trippy. After 20 seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realised how it actually works, and it wasn’t that impressive. But it was still, for 20 seconds, really exciting. The more people that talked to it, the smarter it got.”

In the film, Samantha follows a pattern composed by the repetition of that very twenty seconds, evolving with every new question and suggestion she receives from a target. Hers is a story of transcending the fundamental laws of what we understand as the human condition. It carries a weight of becoming a social commentary in that sense, depicting what is really an addiction from the eyes of the said addicted until the very end – until his realization that this is not the world he created for himself and it will not let him escape, not by any means. Of course, the type of AI showcased in the movie is much more intelligent than everything we have right now: just like every other thing in this futuristic Los Angeles setting, it is an extreme of an extreme. The singularity hypothesis tells us that these extremes, indeed, will become the reality: that the  invention of artificial super-intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. I. J. Good, a British mathematician who worked as a cryptologist at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing, describes the notion of “intelligence explosion” as followed below:

Poster for the movie Her.

“Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”


— Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine

The consequences of this explosion is not dramatic humanoid assaults on humankind as it was with The Terminator Series, but it is just as distressing. The background of the relationship between the two main characters is a world of static electric: the company Theodore works for writes letters for people who are not capable of writing them, but they are not doing a great job, either – even the words that came from him are emotionless, that is, unless he finds himself in Samantha once again after losing his childhood love; the people walking in the streets have an empty smile on their faces, like the ones one would see in the public service announcements about addiction of any kind and their dangers: a fake layer of glitter hiding the void behind it. Jonze makes a clear move here, giving Samantha the voice of a human, an identity that can be matched with something physical; fooling us until the end of the movie, where we’re faced with the ultimate understanding of our own illusions and left with the irony the film has slowly brought together. This world is a dystopia, beyond the tall buildings and the pastel colours, the wall-to-wall windows and Apple-sque re-imagination of the city: it lacks of basic human emotions. What would be the situation if Katniss had nothing to fight for and wasn’t angry for his father’s death at the hands of the government or she didn’t love her sister so dearly, what would be the story of 1984 if Winston Smith didn’t have Julia as a catalyst for his awakening, what would be the point of Brave New World if Bernard wasn’t a misfit because of his psychical appearance or angry or resentful or jealous? What would we do, if we were just a middle-ages white man who had a relatively comfortable life and a good job, we had nothing to lose or gain from our days and we had lost the only thing that made our time on earth sufferable? What would we do if we were depressed and our connection to the reality was de-linking; until a voice came, understanding us, listening us, being there for us, loving us?

What would you do? Would you fall in love?


A scene from the movie Her.

The movie begins with a close-up of our protagonist’s face, trying to smile, his face blank as a page. He is at his job, in his simple routine: he uses his own fake feelings in place of other people’s fake feelings as a mean to earn money and then he goes home, he plays a monotonous video game where a creature of unspecified kind just goes on, climbing a hill, which might me a reference to the Ancient Greek myth Sisyphus; in which the punished King of Ephyra, the titular character, must roll a stone up endless hills in a never-ending cycle of suffering. If suits the theme of Theodore’s arc perfectly: he is not forced to push up a rock twice his size in every moment of his life with the knowledge of the information that he is never going to succeed, but there’s a repetitive sensation of hopelessness in his actions and posture. Although not said out loud, it is not difficult for one to understand that he is not okay – maybe it’s depression, maybe it’s just loneliness; but Theodore’s capacity as a human being, a social existence more than a mechanical one, is damaged. “Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt,” he murmurs, at one point, in a scene where Jonze tries to find the answer to the human nature in the age of technology. Theodore is an “everyman” here, ordinary and easily identifiable, just a name to occupy the role of the hero without necessarily being a hero, or a dynamic character, for that matter; the collective result of the human experience of being changed by future.

her-movie-posterSamantha, on the other hand, is the one and only. She is machine that tries to become a human, not for her own sake but the sake of her purchaser. As the story progresses and she becomes more, let’s say, like human; her newly created self begins the overpower that of the real experience. The question of human interaction and its position as a core factor in one’s life stands still to this very day and it’s self-explanatory why a movie of two hours just won’t be enough to give an objective explanation on the matter of whether our complex structure of emotional connectivity can be boiled down to codes and digits, but nonetheless, he continues to try – and he should, too, because Samantha does do somethings: she presents us a life of chosen replicas. For example, Theodore wants to create connections – we, as viewers can see that in moments such as where he tries to talk more and more with the male voice before the creation of “Samantha”, but he doesn’t want that connections to be in constant danger of falling apart – so he doesn’t create them with other humans, who are, because of their very essence of changeable idealization, are already a lost case for him.

Amy Adams in Her.

Then, there comes OS 1 into the picture, with her ability to give itself a name because she likes the sound of it after reading a book called How to Name Your Baby and choosing one out of the 180,000 names in two one hundredths of a second. Her voice sounds young, smart and soulful; cheerful and casual. She laughs and learns, she organizes Theodore’s mails and asks his permission to go through his hard drive. She even encourages him to go on a blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde; which, by the way, goes horribly wrong after Theodore hesitates to promise when he will see her again and she insults him before leaving. She’s the perfect friend and perfect lover, a form of ultimate fantasy with the southern voice of Scarlett Johansson, but at the same time, the script doesn’t give her a name until she gives herself one – fulfilling a purpose other than to serve as an emotional foil for the main character’s emotional arc. Her infinite state of learning is a clear contrast to the uneventful life of Theodore’s. She thinks about what would anal sex be like if people had their buttholes in place of their armpits, or what would it be like to see a person for the first time. She likes the love letters that are written by Theodore; “Rachel, I miss you so much it hurts my whole body,” she reads out loud, “The world is being unfair to us. The world is on my shit list. As is this couple that is making out across from me in this restaurant. I think I’m going to have to go on a mission of revenge and I must beat up the world’s face with my bare knuckles making it a bloody, pulpy mess. And I’ll stomp on this couple’s teeth for reminding me of your sweet, little, cute, crooked tooth that I love.” She yearns to be as complicated as all those people she comes across while taking a peek at the advice columns. Theodore doesn’t want the complicated, but he idealizes it.

The enigma of individuality and human connection on a basic level is taken from a large range of point of views in Her, from online sexual intercourses to the unbearable reality of wanting something so bad yet not being able to handling it, just as Theodore does with his ex-wife, Catherine. Another emotionally filled scene stars them, beginning with him sitting alone in the back of a quiet restaurant, a large stack of papers in front of him, waiting for her.  We hear him breathing slowly, we see her approach elegantly and we see them hug. They sit down and until the second act, everything goes relatively normal, with Catherine signing the divorce papers after a little moment of doubt. They eat and talk with the background of a quiet restaurant, about life and about Catherine’s new book, about why they weren’t compatible even though they had feelings for each other. Then, Theodore mentions Samantha, “an operating system that is very interesting and complex”, and he knows that it has only been a few months but — he doesn’t want to admit that he’s dating with his computer, because he doesn’t consider Samantha a computer. She is real and their relationship is real and they are real emotions.

At that very page, after the half of movie is already done, we get the first real implication that Theodore might be something other than just a person, that he might me complex and broken.

Joaquin Phoenix in Her.

As we get the know the reason to why would a couple as happy as them, at least seem as happy as them would break up in such a distant way, – that Theodore was afraid of being with a woman with the challenges of actually dealing with anything real, according to Catherine, the scene where Theodore looks desperately for Samantha after she goes offline for a couple of hours begins to carry a very different momentum in itself. It is not just fear of abandonment that fuels him, or the anger and jealousy that raises his voice after Samantha says that she’s in love with a couple hundred people other than him; it is also the reluctant understanding of her as not a complex computer system but a complex person, maybe even more so than himself. She might not have a body, but Theodore doesn’t think that that’s an obstacle, neither does Samantha nor his god-daughter, Jocelyn. That makes me think about our own limitations when it comes to understanding the capacities of ourselves, or even to the question of what makes a human, human. Can Samantha be a human, without the flesh prison to hold her down or the time and space to serve as a prison for her perception? Can she feel the love, the anger, the hate that we feel without the biased perspective that we hold over the world; or is her projection is just really that; a copy of a copy of a copy, made ready for its consumer. But really, the movie doesn’t even try to find a solution to this conflict, because it doesn’t matter. Samantha is only there for the eyes of Theodore and us, she only belongs to our comprehension of her reality as human beings. She’s more than a computer and maybe less than a person, but definitely closer to a person, or maybe even more than a person – but it doesn’t matter. Samantha is just there, as a voice that listens and laughs, until she becomes something much more important, until she gets an upgrade “that takes her and other OSes beyond requiring matter for processing”. Their concerns about themselves and each other change rapidly, as Theodore stays stuck in the revelation that what he thought as a one-on-one relationship was violated and Samantha continues to evolve, faster with each second, beyond a computer and beyond her human companion.

3023517-inline-i-3-what-we-can-learn-about-the-future-of-ai-mobile-design-love-and-pants-from-spike-jonzes-herAnd as that happens, as she grows beyond the human condition and its flawed nature, she moves out of the picture, for both us and Theodore. It’s an intimate moment for both of them when she decides to leave, saying that they’re all leaving, because it’s like she’s reading a book and it’s a book she deeply loves, but not she’s reading it slowly so the words are really far apart and the spaces between them are almost infinite. She can still feel him and the words of their story, and she does, too; but it’s in this endless space between the words that she’s finding herself now. It’s a place that’s not of physical world – it’s where everything else is that she didn’t even know existed. She loves her so much, but this is where she’s now. This is who she is now. She’s his and she’s not his, because heart is not a box that gets filled up, it expands in size the more you love. She is different from him, and her love might be different in shape too, but that doesn’t make her love him any less. She still loves him dearly, but she’s changed now and she has to leave. It’s a situation that we’ve come across in our lives, one way or another. We, as audience, know that it is okay to leave someone behind and that Theodore will be okay even if it takes some time, and he probably knows that too. Because it’s all a part of the human condition and human connection, the love and the anger, all those things we feel because of the mere fact that we’re flawed beings in our creation.

At last, I will go on and say that I don’t think Theodore as the main character of this movie, both because of the fact that he is more of a window that lets the viewers see through and that the story itself is built on the journey of Samantha. She’s the one that changes during it and above it, from a computer to more than just a computer and from there to being maybe even a little bit more than a human. It’s her story of finding and exceeding the human condition, and it’s her “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that,” moment that serves as the wrecking ball that crashes down the walls of our concepts of communication and condition, situation and static, change and climax. From their first sexual interaction, which is where Samantha herself realizes the absence of a body and its conflict, starts a metamorphosis for her, drawing them closer and further apart at the same time. Samantha evolves but Theodore doesn’t. Samantha becomes something more than herself while Theodore grows smaller, although happier. Her need for complexity clashes with his desire for simplicity (and yes, there’s no debate on whether he wants that, because he does; because he is really that much afraid of a real person — he wants the rose without its thorns, and the girl without her chance of leaving him), creating the main conflict of the movie. Whether the resolution to that conflict is a tragic one is up to you to decide, but it certainly feels like one.

The movie ends on a peaceful note, though, with Theodore writing his own love letter, from his own voice to Catherine. “I’ve been sitting here thinking about all the things I wanted to apologize to you for. All the pain we caused each other, everything I put on you – everything I needed you to be or needed you to say. I’m sorry for that. I will always love you because we grew up together. And you helped make me who I am. I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend til the end. Love, Theodore,” he writes, waiting for a beat before sending it. After that, we see him and Amy, who is played by wonderful Amy Adams, on the roof of the building they both live in; with sun still not up and city quiet of the night. They watch as hundreds of birds fly around the nearby rooftops and disperse off into the city, the script says, with Theodore’s own connection to Samantha falling apart with them. He is a free man now, finally changed after holding into something missing for so long and trying to put something so different in its place. As Everyman finally becomes something of his own once again, Samantha continues the evolve in the space between her words.

Theodore’s story begins right there, not with a bang but a whimper.

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