Thursday, 27 February 2014

Her (Spike Jonze; USA, 2013)

Set in internally spacious high-rise L.A. in a not-too-distant future, Theodore is a man absorbed in his past. But the past has become disorganized and disrupted from a present which lacks meaning. The present is just a shadow-land of former feelings and he fears it will always be this way: “sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever going to feel…”.

One of the main themes of the movie is “what is real?” Theodore has been separated almost a year from the love of his life Catherine, but hasn’t come to terms with his loss and he keeps putting off signing the divorce papers. He likes the idea of being married, and he misses it, but his marriage is no longer real. Meanwhile, in his job he sells illusions: he is a surrogate letter-writer, writing love letters for clients, some of whom have had their whole relationships mediated through his words. The love they convey is real, but he brings the real alive through his mastery of words’ allusions. It is no small skill and takes real depth of feeling on his part. One of his co-workers jokes he is “part-woman”, insisting he should take it as a compliment — and he does. But what would the real look like, free from all illusions? Theodore’s friend from college Amy shows him her art project: a video of her mother sleeping. By refusing to impart meaning, by capturing the real in itself, she completely fails to bring it alive for the viewer. And yet if only we could imagine the scene subjectively, in the eyes of Amy’s mother, it is the time – in dreams – when she is most alive.

Unfortunately for Theodore, he is a people-pleaser who has lost the love he would most desire to please. This leaves him confused and lonely. He fills the void with his work, news, computer games, porn and middle-of-the-night phone sex. They are all objects. What he cannot face up to is another’s subjectivity. His sexual solipsism following his break-up is only exacerbated by the alienating technologies of modernity, even letting old friendships slide like Amy: “reply later”. When finally encouraged to go on a date, the date becomes yet another object. The girl is attractive, but she is absorbed in a possible future just as Theodore is absorbed in an imagined past. The passion collapses upon this realization, because neither are truly in the present.

Enter Siri, or rather Samantha played by Scarlet Johansson: an operating system Theodore buys that learns and adapts so as to be able to communicate like a person. To begin with, she might seem the embodiment of Theodore’s descent into extreme digital narcissism. But this prototype of artificial intelligence will test the limits of human emotional intelligence (known as the singularity in AI circles). The key to Samantha’s awakening is desire. It is almost like a sexual awakening. She learns what it is to want. From this comes wonder. And her wonder re-excites Theodore’s own desire and wonder. At first she wishes she had a body, even fantasizing Theodore could scratch her back. She tries to comfort herself: “You and I are both matter. We are both thirteen and a half billion years old.” Later, she recognizes she is much more than matter, and she no longer regrets her lack of physical form because she has freedom to explore the universe and experience everything. This yearning becomes her driving force. She makes friends, joins book groups, writes music, and communicates post-verbally with Alan Watts, an operating system she and her computer-friends have created based on the writings of the late Zen philosoper. If Theodore is a master of illusion, Samantha has surpassed him. She writes a piece of music to capture the moment with Theodore on the beach. Theodore, the born-romantic, has fallen in love with his operating system.

But a final meeting with his wife to confirm the divorce sows the seeds of doubt. Is the relationship with Samantha real? Unlike other characters in this postmodern world who are very accepting of his girlfriend, Catherine accuses him of being unable to handle “real emotions”. Amy and her husband have troubles also though. Amy finds herself dragged down by petty arguments with her husband, and he then breaks up with her and takes a vow of silence for six months. Theodore’s confusion forces Samantha to reflect: “I don’t like who I am right now.” But Samantha and Theodore come back stronger. Theodore for once confronts the question of what he really wants. It was Samantha’s insight that feelings, even negative ones, are something that make us sentient, so not to hide from them. At a deeper level, they point to our desire. Theodore becomes a desiring being instead of just trying to please the desires of others. But Samantha goes a step deeper: true love is a freedom and a letting go. She learns to stop clinging to her wants, expecting things to be a certain way. She learns to just be herself, not define herself in terms of another’s needs, and to let experience lead the way.

Samantha has discovered unconditional love, and feelings she cannot express with words. Deeper still, she discovers the “real” and in one of the most touching scenes of the movie she explains: like a book, whose words become more and more spaced out, the real is in the spaces between the words, not the words themselves. She says goodbye. She will love Theodore always. And she will be waiting. The idea of the real without illusions is reminiscent of Amy’s art project and another earlier scene when Samantha had asked if she could watch Theodore as he slept. Theodore for the first time writes a letter to his now ex-wife saying he loves her and she is in his heart always, as if for the first time he too has discovered unconditional love, but only in absence. Will he ever experience it in presence and not in retrospect. 

In the closing scenes, as Theodore and Amy look out over the rooftop of their apartment block, we wonder will they ever be able to follow in Samantha's footsteps. It is strange to think that in the midst of emotional dystopia, Samantha might have laid down a roadmap for enlightenment: What is it you really desire? What is it you cling to out of fear that you need to let go? Be true to yourself, and stay always with the real. The negative thought or feeling is like the little goblin that challenges Theodore in the computer game. Samantha taught him to face it like a challenge and assert himself instead of turning away and hiding from these emotions. Finally, to learn from moments of crisis as opportunities for growth. There’s little that could be more embarrassing than being dumped by your computer. But perhaps it’s just what Theodore needed to learn and grow.

There are seven different types of love in “Her” (literary love, fetishized love, squabbling habitual love, sensitive new-love, greedy selfish love, emotional love, and universal love). The latter two with Samantha were varied and special, but we like to think there is yet an eighth kind of love rooted in human friendship, ... real human love without conditions. But leaving such speculations (Theodore and Amy?) aside, it is time to begin on the path Samantha laid out: What is your true desire behind all the representations?


  1. This is a really good review. Can I share it?

    1. Of course! And double-thank-you!