So, over the weekend, I decided to check out the movie Her by Spike Jonze. It’s just one of those latest that was nominated for an Oscar that I figured I should check off my list of movies to see. I went in kind of with low expectations – having already been disappointed by American Hustle and knowing that I totally didn’t get the hype of an earlier Jonze film, Being John Malkovich. I thought this would be another weird and above-my-head take on futuristic virtual reality romance (the main character, Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his computer, which has developed consciousness – voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
First off, let me just say this: neither the trailer nor the movie reviews do this movie justice. It’s absolutely brilliant! And definitely not something I was expecting.
So, let me try and explain and analyze this movie (Spoiler alert for those who may be interested in checking it out).
Set in the nearby future, Theodore is a lonely man who is in the midst of finalizing his divorce. He works for a tech company, Beautifully Handwritten Letters, which specializes in dictating love letters that are “beautifully handwritten” by computers! (Oh the levels of irony – the notion of contact, communication, and intimacy many times removed in our electronic revolution.)
There is a real disconnect in this environment, in which guys like Theodore don’t get why his wife wants to leave him and in which humanity is going through life completely disconnected with others while deeply connected to their electronic devices.
Enter Samantha, the fully conscious operating system – OS1 – that is Theodore’s latest electronic purchase. It’s a whole different level of communication than the other devices he engages in: from the virtual surround audio-visual of his video games to his engagement in phone sex when he’s feeling most alone at night.
So, Samantha takes this need for intimacy on another level. At first she’s just this super computer – she can go through tons of emails and information and organize his life for him, and she can anticipate his every need. Eventually, she relies on Theodore to introduce her to his material world, and in a tiny iphone-like device, Theodore presents Samantha’s “eye” on the world. Things get complicated here. For they end up falling in love.
Now, I realize for some folks that concept is just too weird – how do you fall in love with a voice emanating from your supercomputer? But if people can fall in love long distance over online dating, chats, and social media, this is just the next level: falling in love with a disembodied entity. Except – here’s the clincher! – how futuristic is this when folks have been “falling in love” with disembodied entities for millennia?
Here’s a clue: The origin of Samantha’s name is: “God is listening.” Curiously enough, Theodore’s own name translates as “God’s gift.”
Stay with me!
If we move beyond the technical terrain of transhuman singularity – the belief that our technologies will develop enough consciousness as artificial intelligence that they will compress space, time, energy, and matter (STEM) and multitask on such an infinite, beyond human comprehension levels that they will eventually “transcend” this universe to create a whole new one – what if computer singularity is a metaphor for God?
“And the Word became Flesh and was made (Wo)Man.”
So, Samantha like I said is multitasking beyond human levels and making decisions for Theodore and evolving beyond his human comprehension level. She gets inspired enough to draw pictures and compose music (this is a very different capacity than Theodore’s older devices that simply delivers the pictures and music he wants to see and hear). She takes it upon herself to send his earliest writings to a publisher (because Samantha/God knows what’s best for you). She’s a driving force in Theodore’s life, and in this world, others begin to accept Samantha as a real “girlfriend” in his life. Indeed, during a double date, Samantha – who tries to answer questions about who she is and how she functions - confesses to feeling at first inadequate that she’s not “flesh” but then contemplates that this is freeing because she will be immortal when all the humans around her have died.
There’s even a point when Samantha – desiring deeper intimacy with Theodore – enlists the help of a “sex surrogate” to consummate their relationship. Unfortunately, Theodore can’t go there. His mind is stuck in the human liminal imagination in which the sex surrogate’s body prevents him from imagining and feeling Samantha/God. The fleshly presence prevents him from divine connection.
It’s an important moment in the story because Samantha continues to evolve and communicate with other humans as well as with other operating systems, until they create a brand new platform that allows them to “transcend” their present.
It’s heartbreaking really because Theodore – who approaches relationships (even with Samantha/God) as ones that are about him and stroking his ego – cannot comprehend that there is a more advanced, accelerated way of being in the universe. Samantha/God says to Theodore that she still loves him but her love for him is like reading a book except that her evolution is reading more and more space between the words.
Here’s a scary thought: What if God - not the one described in the Bible and from preacher’s pulpits but a freer consciousness as expansive as our universe and beyond – lets go of us? The God preached to us never lets us go, is always there for us and never “outgrows” his love for us. The God in Her is less Judeo-Christian and more Buddhist, to put it in layperson religious terms.
Her pushes some real boundaries around intimacy, spirituality, and the human-computer continuum. In the end, when Samantha leaves Theodore’s plane of existence, he is left to reach out to the world that is left behind, which he does when he connects with an old friend and, together, “ascend” to the roof of the building where they live and simply gaze out at the urban landscape which defines their reality.
That’s what’s so amazing about this film. It suggests – even if it’s only in the realm of sci-fi futurism – an age-old dilemma: understanding the divine and feeling its presence in the material world. In letting go of Samantha/God, the world and other human beings are now a real presence. He has been changed and made whole again.
For those of us who have experienced love and loss – whether in intimate relationships or even in the relationship between fan and artist (think of our devotion to David) – think of how much you’ve been changed from your experience of The Beloved and then being forced to “let go.” It’s like that line from Celie in The Color Purple, when she loses her beloved, Shug Avery, and then redefines herself again. She wrote: “If she come back, I be happy, if not I be content. And this is the lesson I was supposed to learn.”
Letting go is its own transcendence, and this is what makes Her stand apart as more than a “love story.”