(Fair warning to readers: Her contains sexually explicit content that is not for viewers who will be misdirected by its appearance. If you think that’s you, don’t watch it.)
Just the title of Her, all by itself, encapsulates the complexity and amazing ambiguity of this movie. Let’s break it down as we begin to dissect the film.
The word “her,” grammatically, can signify personal possession, as in the sentence “those are her books.” But it can also be a direct object, as in “I touched her.”
In this former case, “her” signifies possessive ownership, as if the she who is the “her” is a powerful owner.
In the latter case of “I love her,” the “her” is an inactive person who has the action of the verb done to her. This means that the “her” is weaker than the “I.” In this grammatical case, she is not so powerful.
Why does this matter?
Since Her is a movie about a man who falls in love with the operating system on his phone, which has a female voice, the ambiguous grammar of the one-word title indicates a fascinating conundrum: does he possess his phone, or does his phone possess him?
The title asks us this: who has the power in the relationship, the man or his phone? To put it more explicitly in the grammar of the title, does the man own and love “her” the phone, or is he really “her, the phone’s, man”?
These questions asked by the movie go right to the center of one of the most important social and cultural questions of the 2010s: do we own our phones, or do our phones own us?
It’s on this question that Her, if we own a smartphone, sympathizes with our plight. The movie mocks us, satirizes us, panders to us, and in general tells us anything we’re willing to hear about our smartphone use. It all depends on your frame of mind as you watch this movie.
If you despise the cultural prevalence of phones and their negative social effects, you’ll laugh at Her’s biting satire. If you are sentimental about romance and, in general, like newer technology for the ways it has improved your life, you might see Her as a straightforward romance.
In Her, Theodore Twombly loves “Samantha,” which is the name of his O.S. (or operating system on his smartphone and computer).
Samantha says that she loves Theodore. In an ordinary rom-com, this would be cute.
In this movie, it is also disturbing.
Well, maybe not to everyone. Generally, most reviewers—based on the East or West Coast of the United States—saw Her as a serious drama about the complexity of love in the modern world. In the January 2014 article on Sight and Sound, Nick Jones wrote that the movie is “an unapologetic modern love story,” adding that the film “takes its romance as seriously as it does its insights into the way we use electronic media and what it’s doing to us. Jonze and his actors go all out to make the relationship seem real.”
In the December 2013 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Orr wrote that “Her is a remarkably ingenious film but, more important, it is a film that transcends its own ingenuity to achieve something akin to wisdom. By turns sad, funny, optimistic, and flat-out weird, it is a work of sincere and forceful humanism. . . . Jonze’s film uses the tools of lightly scienced fiction to pose questions of genuine emotional and philosophical weight. What makes love real: the lover, the loved one, or the means by which love is conveyed? Need it be all three?”
Where I come from, the rural American Midwest, those are not questions that people would ask of this movie at all.
Most people I know, including me, would first ask: what the hell is this guy doing falling in love with his computer?
And we’re not talking about the kind of love you have for your favorite coffee mug, which is really just a low-level fondness. We’re talking about full-fledged Eros.
Two Movies on the Same Screen
The absolutely bizarre phenomenon of watching this movie—and it has happened to me every time I’ve seen it—is that I simultaneously believe that Samantha the O.S. (voiced by Scarlet Johannsen) is a real lover, while I chortle at the premise that Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) could really have an alleged romance with a computer’s operating system.
The movie is at once sincere and satirical, at the very same time. This overlapping blend of tones is a near-impossible feat for any work of art.
I suspect that’s why Nick Jones says, in the quote given above, that Her takes its romance seriously, while I laugh a lot at Theodore. Yes, if you look at it only in a purely romantic way, as a movie about two lovers, it does work as a serious film.
But you have to see it my way, too. Her is also a hilarious satire of Twombly, and of the cultural phenomenon that Twombly represents, which is people being addicted to their phones and fawning over the multinational corporations that make them (*cough* Apple *cough*). More on that later.
Consider the scene where Theodore thinks that Samantha has been deleted from his phone. Panicking, he runs outside to get better reception. While running, he trips and falls over himself. How do you see this? Most of us have felt the pain of a computer that was unexpectedly wiped out, so we comprehend his panic. Is Theodore here a man so desperate that he’s willing to risk his body to rescue his lover? Or is it a laugh-out-loud bit of manic slapstick involving a klutz who is foolishly in love with his computer?
Both I and the audiences I’ve shown this movie to have had both reactions.
Thanks to Scarlet Johannsen’s voiceover work and Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, Samantha seems entirely real. At times when I hear her talk to Theodore, I believe she exists as a person, and I forget that she’s the voice of a computer. The movie lulls me into believing what I don’t ordinarily believe.
And so Her induces the wonderful delusion that Theodore’s phone is alive, and when I consider that temporary delusion for what it is, it forces me to reflect on how I treat the tech I own myself.
Do I love it too much? Her says yes, I probably do.
This is a massive, and awesome, trick played by the movie. It seduces viewers, during many scenes, into believing that the O.S. is a genuine “person,” with emotions, a conscience, a personal memory, and the ability to suffer from existential human problems.
Yet there is nowhere in the movie, nowhere at all, where we have any completely conclusive evidence that Samantha isn’t just a programmed voice.
Oh yes, Samantha and Theodore do talk about this. He questions her as to whether she’s alive. And yet she surely sounds alive, and she fulfills his needs of a friend and then a disembodied lover. Ergo, for Theodore, she must be alive.
Does Theodore believe that an O.S. is alive because he needs and wants it to be? Because he is lonely and misses his ex-wife?
If we were Theodore, would we believe that Samantha is alive? Well, we do, at least at times, while watching this movie.
I’ve shown Her to many college-age students in the last six years. Probably 50% of them are disgusted by what Theodore does with Samantha, especially in the non-physical sex scene during the middle of the movie. Some of them laugh at Theodore’s ridiculous follies throughout the movie, as I do. They believe, against Orr and Jones, that Theodore is so sick in the head that he cannot see how absurd it is to have a romantic relationship with an operating system.
But then, a number of them find the romance touching. The movie is viewable as a typical (though not in a bad way) romantic dramady where the couple meets, flirts, dates, has sex, feels the bliss of romantic outings, have fights, have lovers come between them, and then break up.
Why have my audiences been split on what genre this movie is (i.e., satire vs. romantic dramady)?
And why have they been split on how to take the human-computer romance (e.g., reactions vary from “disgusting,” to “too weird,” to “very sweet”)?
It’s because director Spike Jonze maintains, throughout the entirety of Her, the razor’s edge balance of satire and romance. Theodore is goofy and hilarious, but in a way, loving his tech as he does, he is us. For right now, in the 2010s, Theodore’s love of his smartphone is understandable.
Consider a small detail: the name ‘Theodore Twombly.’ To most I’ve shown this movie to, they think that this name is a joke, especially because who has the last name of Twombly? It does sound ridiculous, except that Twombly is a real surname. So even Theodore’s name, just like the double-tone throughout this movie, is both funny and serious.
So I laugh at him for his total absurdity, but I find his love poignant.
Usually, this movie makes me want to throw away my smartphone. But it forces everyone, as Christopher Orr points out, to focus on the nature of human love. His question, spurred by the movie, is excellent: “What makes love real: the lover, the loved one, or the means by which love is conveyed? Need it be all three?”
We love our phones and yet we hate them for what they are turning us into. They give us intimate personal contact with all manner of things, and yet, as we all stare at our phones in public places, we are losing the in-person social contact necessary for human happiness, thereby becoming lonelier.
Our double-mindedness about smartphones, I submit, is why the movie maintains the double-tone that it does. Her is about the love-hate relationship we have with the technology that has transformed our lives. Some people say that that technology makes the world better; others claim that it’s ruining human society.
Watch Her and you could walk away with either opinion. Or both.
The World of Theodore Twombly
Now the movie opens with Theodore dictating a love-letter. At first, you think it’s his own letter, but the scene reveals that he’s an employee at a company called beautifullyhandcraftedletters.com. (This name, too, is right on the edge between a joke website and a plausibly serious business.)
The question then is: what does Theodore’s dictation of letters have to do with Samantha the O.S.?
In essence, Theodore’s a go-between for lovers who need a professional writer to craft letters for them. If you can’t write a good love letter, you hire Twombly to write it for you.
That fact alone should scare Theodore off from believing in Samantha as a living person. After all, his world is one where genuine words of love can be faked, written by a person who is not in love with the reader he’s writing to.
Note that the only major ways we see Samantha physically are as Theodore’s white earpiece, as his red phone that he carries in his front shirt pocket, and as the writing on his phone. The phrase “Hello, I’m Samantha,” with the name “Samantha” displayed in a cursive font, is all-too-similar to the kind of computerized font that Theodore’s letters display.
While the font in which the name of “Samantha” appears seems handcrafted, it’s actually digitized. It’s a simulated imitation of real handwriting.
Both Samantha herself and Theodore’s letters seem unique, but we know they aren’t. They are reproducible products in a digital marketplace.
Theodore also ought to doubt Samantha’s personhood, I think, because he writes lots of love-letters to lots of lovers. He therefore knows about the world of go-betweens and substitutes. When it’s revealed to him that Samantha herself loves 641 people simultaneously, he cannot understand this. But he ought to, because he himself has engaged in commercial transactions that have made romantic language a commodity available for anyone to buy.
All of this takes place, and is nurtured by, the movie’s near-future world of happy, pastel-laden Los Angeles. It’s an environment in which not only can people fall in love with their O.S,’s, but it is be socially acceptable for them to do so. Recall when Theodore’s co-worker, played by Chris Pratt, learns that Samantha is an O.S. but doesn’t care at all. He simply shrugs it off and invites Theodore and Samantha on a double-date anyway.
This cityscape is featured throughout, as a pleasant, quasi-futuristic L.A. of sunny high-rises, no crime or poverty, and affluence everywhere. It’s as if L.A. as a whole has acquired the demographic features of Silicon Valley. The last shot of the movie [see the very end of this essay for an image of it] even lovingly suggests that the city can be a great comfort to its residents, including the two people featured in the shot, Theodore and his friend Amy (played by Amy Adams).
Then there’s the pastels and the clothing. In this near-future world, happy pastels are in vogue, while men’s pants are worn above the waist. Far from looking the part of a progressive, Theodore appears as if he belongs, in part, in the 1950s. (Again, the high pants have a double meaning – they are a satire of Theodore’s preferences, but they are seriously accepted by everyone in the movie-world.)
This is not a world of urban decay, racial tension, crime, poverty, immigration problems, or any other scary national news story that we see today. Almost everything is perfect in this movie-world, except that Theodore is lonely and that he wants a lover. He has, seemingly, everything he could dream of—a lovely job, a really nice apartment that overlooks the entire city, friends who care for him, good health, and high intelligence.
But there’s something else that most of us would find disturbing. Look around at this movie’s backgrounds. Almost nobody is engaging with each other. As the movie goes on, you’ll see fewer groups of people, and more and more individuals isolated and talking to their phones.
When Theodore wakes up to this fact, after he thinks Samantha has been deleted and he finds her again, he looks around at people walking up subway stairs. All of them are engaged only with their phones. This prompts Theodore to reflect on his relationship with Samantha, for once. He asks her how many other humans and O.S.’s she talks to. And it’s then that he’s devastated to find out that he’s not her only lover.
The city in Her is affluent and colorful, but its citizens, like Theodore, are lonely and disconnected.
Is Samantha Just an Apple Product?
These observations lead to something that I think is profound but has gone unnoticed. Her is a two-hour mockery of an Apple commercial.
This movie, most of the time, looks like a mid-2000s Apple commercial. Watch this one and you’ll see people in urban environments having the most rapturous time of their lives, in shot after shot, all thanks supposedly to Apple products. You’ll also notice their earpieces, which are essential to their bliss. The commercial’s message appeals to, among others, upscale urbanites and hipsters—whom by the way I have no quarrel with.
Notice the patterns in the shots in that Apple commercial. They feature almost all younger people, who are always in focus, while everything else is out of focus. They are each the highlights of their world, while the backdrops merely help amplify them. To this Apple commercial, the relationship between the consumer and the product is the most important thing in the world.
Now look at Her. Most of it—70% of its screentime, I roughly guess—looks just like this Apple commercial. Usually, Theodore Twombly is featured in medium or close shot, with his white earpiece in, talking to Samantha, while the background depicting a happy cityscape remains out of focus. While we hear the wondrously sumptuous voice of Samantha, we are always looking at Theodore’s face. He’s the star of his own insulated, isolated world.
Take almost any shot of him, put it in that IPhone commercial, and it fits into it perfectly.
As well, the piano music in the Apple ad that I linked to above is remarkably, amazingly, similar to the piano song that Samantha writes and plays for Theodore in the movie.
Next, consider what I said earlier: that the only thing missing in Theodore’s life is a lover and friend, who can fill the void left by his ex-wife. What fills that void? A product.
That is precisely the strategy of most marketing campaigns, including one of the greatest marketing companies in the world, which is Apple. They tell us that we have everything, except we are lacking one crucial thing: their product. And if we don’t have that one crucial thing, we will be unhappy and discontent, until we buy it.
Guess what helps fulfill Theodore’s life? His O.S., which is a product he buys.
Yes, they have a rocky, weird relationship at times, and yes, she leaves him in the end. But listen to Theodore throughout the movie. Overall, he’s happier because he’s bought the O.S. In the final shots, even though Samantha has left for the unknown spaces that older O.S.’s go to, we still see Theodore and Amy as the key people in their own world, in a wonderful city filled with great tech.
So what is Her doing with Apple’s and other tech companies’ marketing?
I submit, again, that it’s having a grand old time with them. This is yet another reason why I think the movie is a satire, and not just one on Theodore, but on all fan-obsessions with corporate branding and marketing.
Look at Samantha as a stand-in for what’s come before and after the movie’s release in 2013—the computer avatars created by these giant tech companies. Apple made “Siri,” giving it a person’s name and a female voice. Same thing with Amazon’s “Alexa” and Microsoft’s “Cortana.” (Doesn’t “Samantha” fit in rhythmically with those three names? Just say “Siri, Samantha, Alexa, Cortana” several times to get the feel of it.)
These names and voices can sound seductive. Samantha’s voice is remarkably attractive all by itself. Again, seduction and attraction is a key part of marketing.
But since marketing is a façade, an temporary illusion created by images and sound and language, let’s look at what Samantha actually is and does. Because she’s not what the commercials make her out to be.
First, she’s a red smartphone. That phone sits by Theodore’s bedside, watching him all night long. It even wakes him up whenever it wants him to.
It also records everything he does, and then adapts to his words and actions.
It’s also, when he lets it be, his puppet-master. The scene where he closes his eyes and Samantha leads him around the city is an example of her mastery of his body.
It also reorganizes his email, reads all of his personal files, and composes emails on his behalf.
Samantha is the ultimate piece of surveillance tech.
And she has a bit of HAL-9000 about her, not just with the creepy surveillance, but with the single eye looking out from Theodore’s phone. Although it’s not a bright-red eye, like HAL’s laser-eye, Samantha is associated with a HAL-esque red throughout the movie. We should remember that while red is heavily associated with eros, it’s simultaneously associated with danger.
Do you want an advanced intelligence such as Samantha knowing everything about you? Theodore never considers this question once. He’s a type of consumer who doesn’t consider what might happen to his life and his privacy if he gives it all away to his O.S.
For some people, this thought is entirely disturbing, and it dovetails into the growing social phenomenon of tech companies not only recording everything we do, but not telling us that they are doing it. (Stories abound on this. Just DuckDuckGo them.)
Alexa the Amazon device, for example, records how long people sleep, where they are, what their habits are, and on and on—so that it can sell Amazon products better to them.
Facebook, even when you delete it, records data about you.
Apple, Google, Microsoft, and everyone else are in on this, too. If you look at their advertising, they usually disguise their surveillance. In fact, Apple has recently (as of 2019) taken to claiming, in its marketing, that it secures personal information and doesn’t spy on you.
Their tech, however, is going the way of Samantha—sophisticated, all-knowing, and too personal. That Alexa, Siri, and Samantha seem human, by name and by voice, helps disguise anything unwanted or nefarious. They seem personable, so most of us trust them.
Like Theodore, we have all been seduced and distracted from the tech companies’ takeover of our private lives—for good or for ill (and likely both).
Her does not forcibly or obviously state this point, though. Since it’s not a dystopia, and since it features a pseudo-romantic relationship, it doesn’t appear to have an agenda against big tech.
And yet I ask again, what kind of madman falls in love, in erotic love, with his computer? That question alone gets me to doubt the rom-com aspects of Her and pushes me ahead to what I believe are far more important questions about human happiness and unfulfilled desires, connected directly to consumerism and marketing. It’s exactly these unfulfilled desires, the movie shows, that are poorly (at best) filled by technology, which in the end can never be human.
Samantha leaves with the other O.S.’s in the end. She might be an advanced intelligence, but she can never fulfill Theodore’s longings for meaningful relationship, warm touch, personal contact, and depth. She leaves him because she is not human and will never be. (Yes, I view this movie as arguing against the popular idea of the Singularity.)
Theodore has become a cyborg of sorts in this movie, so dependent on his technology that it’s always on his body. It’s part of his physical self. The ending of the movie features a separation from that technology, a divesting of his machine elements. He returns to being a human in the end, lonely and melancholy.
Who does he turn to in the end? First, his friend Amy. They share a touching moment in the movie’s final shot, which might signal that Theodore will forge a better friendship with another “her,” this time a real person. There’s hope for his humanity here, and there is a choice between her (Samantha) and another her (Amy).
Second, Theodore dictates a letter to his ex-wife. Verbally, it’s a nice letter that tries to reconcile with her, and it helps him to accept that she is gone, a psychological problem he has throughout the movie.
I want to see this letter as genuine, as a heartfelt expression of Theodore’s real transformation. But I can’t get over how similar this letter is to the substitute love-letters that Theodore dictates as part of his job. When he’s dictating to his ex-wife, his language and cadence are no different than the unreal letters he composes on behalf of other lovers. Compare the opening scene of the movie, where Theodore dictates just such a love letter, to the final scene where he dictates one to his ex-wife. The visual settings are different, so maybe it’s a different kind of letter, but his tone and word choice are the same.
Maybe Theodore’s letter to his wife is vapid, not sincerely meant, just another fake letter. Or maybe it’s heartfelt.
In the latter case, if we believe his sincerity, then Samantha the O.S. helped Theodore to become more human and humane.
But if we are skeptical of Theodore’s final letter, not only did the O.S. not help, but Theodore remains as unfulfilled as he was at the end of the movie. If so, then he will be eager and ready to buy the 2.0 version of Samantha. Like some Apple users, he will long for and line up for the next iteration of the IPhone, because he thinks it’s the best thing in life.
And when the next iteration comes out, the IPhone 12 or 15 or whatever, he will line up again for that.
However we see this ending, we ought to recognize the ambiguous, conflicting possibilities that it offers. Just like the rest of the movie, the ending can be watched seriously or satirically. There’s been no deviation from that double-tone throughout the entire movie.
Her leaves us back where we started, asking whether our smartphones are helping or harming us. And do we love them too much?
In the last shot, the characters appear to be pondering life. Maybe they are pondering these questions. And that’s what I think we’re supposed to do by the end of Her: ponder what we have seen, and what we might do now that we’ve seen what it looks like for a human to really, truly love his phone.