Yesterday afternoon, I went to the movies by myself and saw Spike Jonze’s Her. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly (a great name that is fittingly formal and childish), Her is the story of a man who enters into a serious relationship with an intuitive and intelligent operating system (OS) named Samantha, the voice of which is performed by Scarlett Johansson, who strikes a perfect balance of both sexy and innocent, sometimes both simultaneously, throughout the entire film. However, this piece will not necessarily be a review as much as a discussion of some of the film’s major themes and real world implications thereof. By way of a quick review, though, I’ll say the movie is fantastic and everyone should go see it immediately.
Many critics have read this movie as Jonze’s critique of our technology-driven society, the end of all human relationships and interaction as we know it. As a person who is specious of technology in general, it would make sense for me to jump on that bandwagon. But, I can’t. At best, this movie is ambivalent toward technology. It seems to me that what Jonze really wants is for us to take a closer look at relationships in general. Whether they are “artificial” or “real” matters not. In fact, one of the central questions of the movie is: what is a real relationship?
Because Theo is involved with an OS, he constantly questions whether or not his relationship is real. His debate with himself and others stems from the fact that his partner has no body, no physical form. However, the two engage in all other aspects of what humans would consider a “real” relationship: dates, late night philosophical conversations about life, death, knowledge and love, laughing, reading, arguing, and playing video games with each other. They even have sex. Though not a physical act of love making (it’s more like the equivalent of phone sex), they engage in a fully intimate moment, which Jonze treats beautifully by blacking out the screen so we cannot see what they’re doing but can only hear the wonder and excitement in their voices. We are experiencing sex as they are experiencing it – in the dark with no physical involvement – and, take it from me, it feels very very real. This scene, maybe most powerfully, changes the dynamic of what it means for something to be real.
I know many people who have almost purely virtual relationships with other people, and, according to said people, their inability to be physically “present” with that person does not in any way diminish the quality of that relationship. Thus, it seems that, for many, real is defined more through an intellectual or emotional connection than it is through a physical one. Or, I should say, an intellectual or emotional connection seems to trump what we perceive as the need for or importance of a physical connection (though I think most of us would argue that having all three is a big win).
The flip side to this is the “real” relationship, the physical one in which you can see and touch the other person. In Her, Theo is in the process of getting divorced from his very real wife Catherine, played by Rooney Mara. Catherine is, indeed, a physically present woman with a body and hair, yet Theo’s relationship with her fails. Does this mean that their relationship was any less real because it did not last forever? Quite the opposite. The couple acknowledges that what they had was very real but just didn’t work out. Their impending divorce doesn’t erase what once was a very real, very meaningful relationship in the same way that Samantha’s lack of a physical body doesn’t or can’t erase the feelings she and Theo have for each other. Just because someone’s not “there,” doesn’t mean a connection is not, or was not, present or possible.
Which brings me to one of the larger, and maybe more morose, themes of the film: the only thing that is really real is that your “someone(s),” inevitably, will no longer be “there.” This is not a mundane “love is fleeting” argument; it’s a basic fundamental truth. Whether it’s distance, divorce, death, or deactivation (if you’re dating your technology), eventually we will lose those that we love. This theme also arose in Season 3, Episode 2 of Girls when Hannah and Ray are discussing Ray’s recent break up with Shoshanna:
Ray: We live in a huge, sprawling metropolis where it’s very very easy to avoid the person you don’t want to see.
Hannah: Yeah, but that’s so sad.
Ray: Why? Because we once shared true and stunning intimacies and now we’re nothing more than strangers?
Ray: That’s not sad, Hannah. That’s called life.
While Ray is content to leave the discussion there, Her reminds us that life goes on and not always in such a melancholy way. We are, for all intents and purposes, human beings. We are resilient. Above all, we are social. Therefore, until we are dead in the ground, it is in our nature to always have at the ready someone or something with which to connect. It’s up to us to determine how to make it real.