Superficially, Her is striking because it’s entirely plausible. From the Apple-tinted future tech to the subtle revisions to fashion to the utter solitude found in a crowd, the film has a great deal to say about the near future, and the world we’re in the process of creating. And yet, Her isn’t about the science fiction. It’s not about predicting the future or scaring us straight. It is, simply, a love story in a different time than ours, with a different set of rules and the same expectations. Had he wanted to, Writer/Director Spike Jonze could have explored the futurist angle — there’s ample evidence that he designed his world far past what was necessary for the story he’s telling — but that’s not where his interests as a storyteller lie. They lie with people, and the connections between people, and the unexplored places to which these connections can take us.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) has been separated from his wife (Rooney Mara) for nearly a year. He works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, phantom-writing heartfelt, personal letters to people he’s never met. Theodore shows all the symptoms of a calloused heart, and after too many sleepless nights decides to bring home OS1, a personally-tailored, artificially intelligent operating system. Her name is Samantha. Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) sees the world for all of its wonders, and her brio pulls Theodore away from his gloom. Their relationship is sparkling and mutually beneficial, recalling for Theodore the worth of love, and cultivating in Samantha a rapacious curiosity. They fall deeply for one another, and do their best to ignore the looming shadow of change that haunts all relationships.
It’s hard to gauge Her, because the world Spike Jonze has built feels at once massively huge and refined, and utterly insular. A not-insignificant aspect of the film’s plot deals with the sudden diffusion of millions of advanced, artificially-intelligent operating systems, and the way the world responds to them. In the same way that tech companies are perfectly content to hand us wildly advanced technology without any real consideration of the way it will change who we are, how we interact, how our brains work, etc., the developers of OS1 seem to bring their creation into the world without a second thought. Imagine, suddenly some fraction of the world’s computers are capable of thinking, learning, reacting, feeling mad, feeling sad, feeling love — this would be a world-altering event on the scale of the internet, yet Her remains about the individual, and the simple facts of connecting with another “person.” It’s hard not to admire Spike Jonze’s ability to stay close to his love story, as his script inevitably opens up enumerable questions far outside of Twombly and the state of his heart.
But since that is what the film is about, it should be said that Her is a perfect love story. Similar to Eternal Sunshine or Annie Hall, the tale of these two lovers is complex, and riddled with universal truisms. Arguably, a film is never as resonant as when it shows its characters experiencing something you thought only you had uncovered, and Her is eager to spotlight the hard and the soft of love, the expectations of another, the awkwardnesses intrinsic to a new relationship, the challenge of carving a place in your life big enough to accommodate someone else. It’s not a surprise to find that Spike Jonze is so well-equipped to tell a love story — his work tends to focus more on the quest for connection than anything else — but it is a surprise to find that he can write about it so gracefully. Only recently has Jonze thrown his screenwriting hat in the ring, yet Her feels remarkably sure-footed with its words, and suggests a compelling new chapter in the filmmaker’s career.
It’s hard to be sad, but you can’t be truly happy without loving yourself, Her seems to say. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Her isn’t at its core a story you haven’t seen before, which somehow is what makes it so utterly captivating. Jonze has applied technology to his first true love story because that’s the world we live in, and going forward, whether we like it or not, technology will play a significant role in the way we connect to one another. But connecting isn’t about the means. Connecting is about opening yourself up, and allowing another someone to see all of you. It’s about aligning yourself to someone else, and accepting all of their defects in the same way you ask them to accept yours. This is why Her will be relevant far past the point where our future has been written. Because the beauty of love is in its universality, and no matter how we build a bridge to another person, the fundamentals will never change.