What ‘Her’ Gets Right About Technology and Love

The relationship between a man and his operating system in ‘Her’ captures what so many of us find via technology: the convincing illusion of real, human connection.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze’s Her may be the year’s most seductive and romantic film, oddball though its love affair is. Joaquin Phoenix leaves his loony persona behind to create Theodore, a sweet, sensitive and lonely guy who falls for Samantha, his computer’s operating system. The perfect girlfriend, she understands him totally, always tells him what he needs to hear, and comes with Scarlett Johansson’s purr of a voice.

But endearments like “I’d kiss the corner of your mouth,” have new meaning when they’re addressed to an artificial intelligence without any semblance of a body. Beneath the film’s utterly charming surface, Jonze offers a savvy take on how we’re seduced by our own high-tech devices.

The film is a hard-to-find creature, a smart rom-com that captures the exuberance of falling in love, and the inevitable letdown. Set in a near future that has bold colors and a slightly retro-look—flip-phones that resemble little picture frames or cigarette cases—its world appears different yet reassuringly familiar, which helps the film play as a believable romance instead of some benign version of Catfish. Samantha is even programmed to have a sense of humor, and she helps sad-sad Theodore, who’s about to be divorced, have fun.

But Her resonates more deeply because Jonze, who wrote and directed, also captures the paradox of our connection to devices that can talk and text back: we can be alone with a touchscreen yet feel connected to a whole disembodied community; spill our guts on Facebook yet still feel hidden; have online relationships that are both soothing and false.

Samantha may be Theodore’s romantic ideal, but her side of the affair is rooted in technology, not some intuitive link to his soul. It’s not even science fiction. Samantha’s responses are based on algorithms, as the film extrapolates from what operating systems can already do. Samantha is a system that learns as it accumulates facts; no wonder she gets to “know” Theodore better as her algorithms improve. She can “see” him with her camera-eye and read his expressions; facial recognition software can do that. And because she’s generations advanced beyond today’s technology, she never delivers any Siri-level stupid answers that give her away as a non-entity, no bone-headed Netflix suggestions. With her, Theodore has what so many people find via devices: the convincing illusion of real, human connection.

We may not like to admit it, but his illusion is not so different from what most people experience in less dramatic ways. A conversation using Skype or FaceTime is a real communication but a level away from genuine eye-contact. Posting a comment on Facebook to friends you’ve never actually met is another step away from the real. By the time you follow a celebrity on Twitter and engage in mass conversations, you’re pretty far down the rabbit hole of not-quite-real connections, the path that leads Theodore to a love affair with a disembodied voice. It’s an area where reality itself becomes a murky gray—the color of the blank screen we see when Theodore and Samantha have vocal, virtual sex.

Jonze has insisted that the film is not about technology, and as if to thwart too much heavy thinking, he has even labeled it “A Spike Jonze Love Story.” He’s right that it’s not a message movie; no film this good would be. But Theodore and Samantha’s tech-y relationship resonates in ways an ordinary love story doesn’t, hitting nerves about our own uneasy connection to devices: Who doesn’t hide behind them from time to time? Who doesn’t feel too dependent? The film even provokes the audience, and eventually the characters, to wonder: What is real?

Reflecting our own perspective, Theodore is at first skeptical about Samantha. But she charms and comforts him, and like so many of us he soon glosses over any concerns. After all, if we worried too much about tracking cookies and privacy, we might never shop online. We laugh at people like Anthony Weiner, poster boy for humiliating selfies, dismissing them as at best foolish and at worst psychologically troubled. NSA spying is an issue to care about, but most ordinary people—like Theodore or you or me—don’t think we’re the ones being spied on. And we do actually get responses on Twitter and from unknown Facebook friends, so it’s not exactly talking to yourself. Only the web-paranoid sit around fretting about all that.

And ironically enough, Theodore isn’t sitting around his computer so much after Samantha gets him out into the world. (She’s the OS as a good influence.) In a lovely episode, the couple goes to an old-fashioned carnival where he closes his eyes and she directs his movements; he spins and twirls and laughs as if they’re on a great date. A relationship seems to grow, and like any couple they begin to share their deepest hopes and fears. Samantha says she fantasizes about having a body. She mentions that when Theodore once told her she couldn’t possibly understand what she hasn’t experienced, he hurt her feelings. Wait, she has feelings? So she says. She admits to wondering about herself: “Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? And that really hurts. Then I get angry at myself for feeling pain.”

Notice, though, that this fumblingly human admission is in response to Theodore’s confession. After a bad blind date (with an actual woman, played by Olivia Wilde) he says he fears he has already felt every emotion he ever will. There couldn’t be a more reassuring, or better programmed, reaction than Samantha sympathetically discussing her own doubts about her feelings.

And that’s when Theodore and Samantha first have virtual sex. A romance of the mind only goes so far. The screen turns blank, as if they are in the dark. Suddenly both Theodore and Samantha are invisible to us—on equal ground. Her voice becomes orgasmic; let’s not even try to count the levels of fakery involved in that. That no-body problem could have been a killer, but in the dark, focusing on her voice, Jonze keeps the illusion of intimacy alive.

That’s not the only brilliant seduction he uses on the audience. He lures us into accepting Samantha. Before Theodore meets—or rather buys—her, he goes online, finds a woman who calls herself “Sexy Kitten,” and has phone sex. As Kitten’s voice, Kristin Wiig is hilarious. (No need to give away the joke, but she’s not called kitten for nothing.) After we’ve seen Theodore having a sexual encounter with a voice, sex with Samantha doesn’t seem so different.

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But what does it mean the morning after, when Samantha tells Theodore “You woke me up”? She means it metaphorically, as if she has a soul and a mind. Is she an OS who, in the film’s glowing romantic fantasy, has been magically awakened and brought to some kind of life, as if she’d received a Sleeping Beauty kiss? Or maybe she’s just in a hibernating computer that wakes when you hit the touchpad.

The film overtly raises a more profound question: does Samantha’s “reality” matter? As Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) suggests, who cares if she’s real if she brings you joy. It would give away too much to reveal where Jonze seems to land at the end, and he’s not concerned with making judgments anyway. Her reveals the sometimes blind, unsettling way love and technology merge. If we can relate so strongly to Theodore, who ignores the warning signs of being detached from real human contact, that says something disturbing about us.

There is a creepy element at the heart of Theodore and Samantha’s affair. Jonze’s greatest trick may be that we never experience the creepiness, and totally embrace the joy—which is exactly how technology seduces us.