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As those of us who lust over pretty films have done before, I chose Spike Jonze’s 2013 feature film Her not for its plot, nor for its narrative.
Netflix had put Her in its ‘cinematography’ category, and so like a student staggering past Sultans at 3 am on their way home from Sugar, I gravitated towards it. With any luck, the plot would be coherent enough for me to appreciate the visuals, but I had no expectations.
Now, like many before me, I can’t get it out of my head. Her is a sci-fi/romance set in the future where advanced technology hasn’t changed life into something unrecognisably nightmarish, per se, but has altered the fabric of society with much more uncanny subtlety. We begin when Theodore (played to perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) gets a new, artificially intelligent virtual assistant, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore is your average porn-watching, mid-divorce soft boy who, ironically enough, writes faux-handwritten personalised love letters through a futuristic software for other people as a profession. His career choice is the first introduction to the main themes of Her: technology’s effect on human interpersonal relationships and, by extension, the dichotomy between what is reality and what is appearance.
Said themes take the steering wheel when, rather inevitably, Theodore falls in love with the AI with the sexy female voice – a commentary, perhaps, on male desire in relation to appearance vs reality, for it is only within this artificial world that such subservience can possibly exist. The most terrifying element of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is how genuinely it is portrayed. Through the use of amazing acting, beautiful cinematography (which appealed to my sweet tooth), and a pretty soundtrack, the audience, just like the characters within the film, become normalised to this odd relationship. Theodore’s joy becomes ours too, and we start to forget that Samantha is a programmed personality and not a real person. This raises the question: how far are we willing to go to distract ourselves from real life for a semblance of happiness?
Near the end of the film, there is a sequence in which Theodore, after having a conversation with Samantha, looks about himself and sees person after person talking to the AI plugs in their ear. The people do not acknowledge one another. They are all wrapped up in the ‘perfect’ relationships they have with their AI, distracting themselves from the imperfect but real people around them. The parallel between this utopia (or, in my perception, dystopia) and the 21st century made me feel like a Baby Boomer perceiving Gen Z.
Jonze states, in his 2013 interview with NPR, ‘[the movie] touches on all of the themes that you’re talking about in terms of the way we live in our modern life right now’. It would be easy to brush off this message of “phone bad book good”, however, in a society where, as Frontiers in Psychology states, increased phone usage has been linked to increased loneliness, stress, and comorbidity, the message of technology separating us from reality rings true. On the other hand, one of the many beautiful things about Her is in how it contradicts itself.
Yes, this retreat into appearance/virtual reality and relationships is presented as spooky, but reality is presented as equally sad. The flaws of the relationships between the human characters are portrayed in such a realistic way, so devoid of the glossy love shown in Hollywood romances, that it feels like a slap in the face. The reality of love is far from desirable in this movie, and so the audience is left to understand why the characters would choose relationships with their AI.
While there are a multitude of big questions in the film, at the end of the day, Her is a film designed to be felt. As Jonze says, “this movie is, to me, so emotional. When you’re asking these questions that are more intellectual … that’s only half the story.” No doubt it is true – Her makes the audience feel all things that the main characters are afraid to: heartbreak, love, and loneliness.