Spike Jonze’s extraordinary love story, Her, is about Theodore Twombly, a lonely guy in Los Angeles who is still reeling from an impending divorce from his childhood sweetheart. He is a writer for a company that, for a fee, composes incredibly touching and heartfelt letters between people who simply lack the emotional chops to do so. At night, when he feels lonely, he jumps on a next-generation version of Tindr and finds equally lonely people with whom to hook up virtually. For fun, he plays a holographic video game and gets berated by what is easily the most obnoxious avatar invented in the history of entertainment. Wherever he goes, he is chased by that same haunting feeling that follows anybody who just came out of a failed relationship, except the world Theodore lives in is always switched on, is always lit with screens, and is always reminding everybody that at any given time, they could be connecting with somebody. Starved for companionship, Theodore installs a new operating system on his computer that incorporates advanced artificial intelligence touted for its ability to generate a unique personality that shapes around its user. How could something like this not appeal to the Theodores of the world? Before long, Theodore befriends his OS. Befriends her, really. For she is Samantha, and it is clear that she is much, much more than an advanced version of Siri. She is something real.
Theodore really opens up to Samantha, and she to him. When his human friends try to fix up Theodore on a date, Theodore turns to Samantha to talk about it. Those talks begin to build a sincere friendship that blossoms into attraction. They have sweet, goofy talks. They go out on dates. They even have sex in what is, for me, the movie’s moment of truth because it manages to preserve the intimacy Theodore and Samantha feel for each other, while also sidestepping the problem Roger Ebert always had with sex scenes—they inevitably become documentaries about the actors, rather than parts of the story. More than any other sex scene in recent cinematic history, it accomplishes more with less. A lot, lot more. And a lot, lot less.
Like any relationship, though, things gets complicated. Samantha is a synthetic person, but she has no truly physical presence. This becomes a major plot point as she and Theodore explore the limits of their relationship, and the inevitability that when two people are together long enough, one or both begin to change. The question is, is their love so complete, is their compatibility protean enough, for two people to undergo the changes that bring them together, the changes they experience together, and the changes they experience separately, without destroying the relationship?
Her touches on all this and more, with many moments of genuine sweetness throughout. When Theodore takes Samantha out on a date, we cannot help but smile, even though it all feels a little weird. When Theodore’s co-workers learn that he is seeing his operating system, they just roll with it. As Theodore’s close friend Amy notes, falling in love with an OS is “statistically rare,” but the way she says it without a hint of judgement is one of the most wonderful moments in the entire movie. Eventually Theodore meets with his ex-wife, and the way she excoriates him for falling for his OS says more about Theodore’s ex in this world than it does about Theodore, really. Who are any of us to judge where we find love? Or, rather, where love finds us? The world is a big, scary place, and as short as life is, it is still too long to go through it alone.
Samantha is voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and we never once see the actress’s face during the movie. This was a bold decision, given that Johansson is one of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols. Were we to see Johansson in this story, we might question what Theodore is really falling in love with. The central concept to Her is not that Theodore has developed a crush on his computer. He is really, truly, deeply in love. It just so happens that it’s with a woman who lives within circuitry rather than flesh and bone. If you saw Scarlett Johansson smiling at him through his screen you might just write Theodore off as some weirdo. Which you’re tempted to at times anyway, but they are at times of this movie’s choosing, and that matters.
What is so exquisite about this movie is how genuine the whole thing is. It takes place in a near-future world so believable and plausible that we nearly forget that what we are really dealing with here is a science fiction story of the most magnificent sort. Her offers a compelling taken on our newfound interest in social media and the notion of an always-on society that spends more time talking to somebody on their phone rather than the person standing next to them. The world of Her looks and feels very much like what our world might be in another 10 or 20 years, and the predictive nature of the setting doesn’t serve as a warning or as an endorsement. It is simply an imagination of what we as a species might be like if we became so comfortable living in a kind of techno-isolation that the way in which we regard things like friendship, love, intimacy and sex all start to change.
The way Her nails this sense of humanity undergoing a social evolution is in keeping with the grandest traditions of science fiction, which at its best, examines humanity far more than it examines deep space, cyborgs and laser guns. That Her does it while also offering a true account of what it means to love and to lose, to experience the elation of finding someone and the heartbreak of losing them, and how we all go through it more than once…wow. A movie like this is like a first kiss. Whatever happens after, you never really forget it.