On falling in love (with an Operating System)
By Max Weiss. Posted on January 07, 2014, 1:30 pm
-Warner Bros. Pictures
In the not so distant future, a lonely man named Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with Samantha (the voice of Scarlett Johansson), an intuitive operating system. Meanwhile, his friendship with a recently divorced Amy (Amy Adams) flourishes. You think you know where this story is going—except that you don’t. Because writer/director Spike Jonze is simply too interesting, too weird (in the best possible sense) to tell us to embrace humanity over technology. Instead, he suggests something more radical: That happiness, even artificial happiness, is not something to be trifled with.
While Theodore’s ex wife (Rooney Mara) pities Theodore for not being able to sustain a human relationship, his friends, including coworker Paul (Chris Pratt) are much more blasé about it. Paul even invites the disembodied Samantha—who rests on a blanket or sits perched in Theodore’s pocket—on a double-date picnic. Meanwhile, Amy has also become close to her OS, although their relationship is strictly platonic.
The best science fiction gives us a credible vision of the future while slyly commenting on our now. Her—with its gorgeous, minimalist art direction (by Austin Gorg), retro-future clothing (Theodore favors orange shirts and high-waisted tweed trousers), and city streets populated by people who are so plugged into their interactive devices they barely notice each other—does just that. (After all, aren’t most of us already in a relationship with our smartphones?) Jones doesn’t judge, he simply observes, with humor and humanity. It’s the future, through the eyes of a poet.
Theodore’s job is to write letters, mostly love letters of both the platonic and romantic kind, for people who are unable to properly express themselves. A few times Samantha, who absorbs every word of Theodore’s hard drive in a microsecond, quotes Theodore back to Theodore, and he doesn’t even realize it. She’s his perfect woman, the Eve to his Adam—except instead of his rib she’s created out of his hard drive. (And with that breathy Scarlett Johansson voice, “phone sex” takes on a whole new meaning.)
Creepy? Sure. But Theodore is undeniably happy with her. Also, Samantha doesn’t isolate him: He sees the world through her eager, insatiably curious eyes—she actually lifts him from his funk, opens him up to life’s possibilities.
A lot of science fiction deals with the threat of some sort of man vs. machine rebellion. Her deals with a more pressing threat: Can an Operating System break your heart?
Max Weiss is the managing editor of Baltimore and a film and pop culture critic.