When Spike Jonze looks to the future, there are no white-and-chrome spaceships or giant leaps for mankind. It’s small steps forward: a crisp pastel aesthetic, video games that give back more and relationships that baffle us. All the minutiae of tomorrow, today.
In Her, Theodore Twombly writes other people’s love letters for a living, plays video games with profane video game assistants, and tries to make romantic connections with varying degrees of failure. But when he updates his personal-data device with an AI OS (artificial intelligence operating system) that names herself Samantha, he finds himself falling in love with someone who’s literally at his beck and call. Her essentially takes bets on how that will go wrong and whether he, or we, will learn anything from it.
In crafting this oddball and occasionally twee romantic dramedy, Jonze’s concerns for the future are definitively of the present: the ways in which minor changes and immersive fantasies can become personal obsessions, careful idiosyncrasies in a world designed never to feel science fictional to those living in it. In Her, the development of artificial intelligence is given as much exposition as the armpit-high waistlines on men’s pants. The world happens around us; we just live in it and make do.
In some ways, this is an excellent decision. It eases us past the falling rocks of exposition that science fiction movies often seem to think audiences require. But occasionally, this same lived-in vagueness works against the film thematically, particularly since his peripheral worldbuilding is, as can happen with Jonze, more interesting than his central conceit. The profane video-game figure becomes a foulmouthed quasi-sidekick whose potential awareness and loneliness is mentioned in passing but never dwelt on; it’s a poignant beat from a comic-relief character. Yet, Theodore works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, a company that hires the poet-hearted to carry on people’s heartfelt correspondence, an apt metaphor for the film’s many missed connections and technologically enhanced relationships. It begins as a grace note and subtle thematic underpinning, but by the time it becomes a major plot point that involves publicity for Theodore under his own name, the mechanics still aren’t clear—Is Theodore participating in these relationships with their knowledge? Are these letters an open gesture or voyeurism?—and raises questions the movie never answers, leaving the concept adrift among half-meanings and suggestions.
Then again, maybe that’s fitting, since Her’s dreamy meandering sometimes works against it. The film’s exploration of relationships has been lauded in many quarters since its limited release at the end of 2013, and Joaquin Phoenix received due praise for making Theodore so recognizably human, keeping us largely sympathetic toward a character who, on paper, is Llewyn Davis levels of alienating. To some degree, the film engages with the idea of his unrealistic expectations, and there’s a cursory discussion about what possible markers can make a relationship with an OS feel mutual rather than like conversing with an overly-accommodating Siri, suggesting an OS is doomed to be less than the real thing.
If the specifics play out in rom-com cliché beach walks and carnival dates, perhaps that’s just an attempt to normalize such an unconventional romance. But unfortunately, Her falls into some other rom-com patterns that begin to drag at its charms and occasionally undermine its premise. Most notably, the non-Samantha women in Theodore’s life don’t suggest autonomous people with whom he doesn’t connect or missed opportunities at happiness so much as momentary obstacles. They’re presented as needy (two blind dates of a sort, plus potential girlfriend Olivia Wilde, all of whose desires and disappointments get played for laughs), adoring (long-term piner Amy Adams, who constantly seeks his validation in her work) or abrasive (ex-wife Rooney Mara, whose assessment of his emotional level is framed as a sharp monologue that discomfits the wait staff). It’s heartening to see so many women represented, but their presence is often as cursory and unexamined as the blip in a video game.
Whether or not Samantha is the real thing is a primary concern of the movie, and it unfolds through a relationship that begins like a Hallmark card, veers into heady theory and eventually becomes that couple next to you in Starbucks. What level of consciousness is capable of love? For that level of consciousness, what does love encompass, and how does its scope within each person kindle–or smother–love? Why can’t we ever just listen; are we even listening when others talk?
Her offers a wonderfully low-key science-fictional universe, and Phoenix delivers a thoughtful performance that nearly anchors the movie’s exploration of relationships in a too-connected world. If the execution never quite matches up to the theory, you can always argue about it later with someone you love.