Romancing the Phone

by Thomas Hibbs
Finding love with an Operating System named Samantha

Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, is a love story about a man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), and his futuristic Operating System, the self-named Samantha (voice by Scarlett Johansson). In a film that is more romantic comedy than science fiction, Jonze presents what might once have seemed an absurdly comic premise as a potentially natural outgrowth of current cultural conditions: the development of technology that serves our every need along with our increasing disconnection from one another. The result is a decent film, even at times a gently moving film, with fine performances by Phoenix and Johansson. But because its emotional range is narrow and its fascination more with the expansive capacities of technology than with the complexity of human nature, it fails to exploit the dramatic possibilities of its unusual plotline.

Lonely, somber, and aloof, Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). His social life consists mainly of occasional evenings with his friend Amy (Amy Adams), a designer of video games who will also develop a close friendship with her own OS. He also exchanges pleasantries with co-workers at, in an office where everyone sits at his or her own computer composing highly personalized letters for every occasion. Things change for Theodore when he brings home a new operating system, and a female voice, spontaneous and inviting, introduces herself in a remarkably disarming way.

The film might be seen as an exploration of the thesis of MIT computer-science professor Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. In her 1995 book, Life on the Screen, Turkle offered a decidedly positive appraisal of the opportunities for creativity and interaction supplied by the Internet. Alone Together is not so rosy: “These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.” She adds: “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy. We don’t want to intrude on each other, so instead we constantly intrude on each other, but not in ‘real time.’” It could also be seen as a reflection on our love affair with commodities — with the consumer objects on which we lavish so much of our attention.

As the novelist Walker Percy once observed, ours is the great age of abstraction, an age in which we long to be freed from the limits of the body, to dwell in abstraction from the things and persons in our immediate environment. We tweet and read e-mail while ignoring flesh-and-blood others sitting at lunch or in meetings with us. We walk down streets or across campuses reading e-mail, oblivious to ambient sights and sounds. With our constant posting on Facebook and Instagram, we seem more interested in reporting or recording our experiences than we are in the actual experiences. We are at once anywhere and nowhere. The artificial, the latest in techno-gadgets inspire our awe more than the beauties of the natural world.

Despite our obsession with the made or constructed, we remain desperate for the really real, for what is not constructed or fake, but we have diminishing hope of attaining it. We typically end up settling for fake authenticity. That paradox is captured cleverly in the opening scene of the film, in which we see Theodore sitting at a computer dictating a letter that includes references to a golden anniversary and to “the girl I was.” He is admired by co-workers for his ability to craft such letters for others, who outsource their most intimate communications. The computer even prints them in such a way that they really look handwritten. Fake authenticity.

What is refreshing about this film is the way in which it mostly avoids using special effects, despite its preoccupation with technology, and anchors its plot in ordinary, daily, human life. Technology itself is humane. Sam’s sexually alluring and warmly comforting voice is the stand-in for technology itself. While her tone occasionally changes — from joy to sorrow or amiability to anger, it never grates; it is always smooth and inviting. The same can be said of the auditory and visual qualities of the film. Accompanied by a dreamy, mesmerizing soundtrack, the luxurious cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema offers a warm and welcoming look.

This is a decidedly different take on the future relations between humans and machines from the perspective that dominates mainstream science fiction. Worries about technology, and especially about artificial intelligence, have bred some of the most powerful science-fiction films of the modern era. From Blade Runner to The Matrix, the central motif is the way in which creations return to plague their inventors. Once unleashed, the intelligent creature has a capacity to turn against its creator, as Mary Shelley warned in Frankenstein all the way back in the early 19th century. Here science fiction overlaps with Gothic horror.

The science-fiction author P. K. Dick, who wrote the stories on which Blade Runner and Minority Report were based, is especially articulate about this. In the essay “Android and Machine,” he observed:

Within the universe there exist fierce cold things . . . machines. Their behavior frightens me especially when it imitates human behavior so well that I get the uncomfortable sense that they are trying to pass themselves off as human, but are not. . . . The greatest change growing across our world . . . is the momentum of the living towards reification and at the same time the reciprocal entry into animation by the mechanical. We hold now no pure categories of the living versus the non-living.

Jonze’s Her, with its beguiling Samantha, is the counter to Dick’s vision, even if at the end it recognizes the possibility of technology’s coldness.

The conceit concerning mutual affection between human and machine works surprisingly well, if not perfectly. Phoenix is compelling as a lonely, somewhat emotionally stilted man, while Johansson’s voice of Sam is so convincing that it is easy, at least for periods of time, to forget that she is a disembodied consciousness accessed through a computer or a phone. Of course, it helps that this is the recognizably enticing voice of Scarlett Johansson. It also helps for the audience that, although Theodore has no idea what Johansson looks like, we do. One wonders how well the film would work if it featured the voice of Nancy Grace or Kathy Griffin.

The initial courtship is handled with just the right tone of uncertainty and exploration, with two steps forward followed by a step back. Indeed, the most credible thing about the film is its portrayal of growing intimacy between Theodore and Sam. In one scene, as Theodore sits on a beach watching the waves with his phone in his pocket, enabling Sam to see what he sees, she composes a musical interlude to express their shared feelings at that moment. It is a moment of unadulterated peace and harmony. Here, as in other scenes in the film, Jonze establishes just the right sort of balance between speech and silence, a balance characteristic of human intimacy and friendship.

During the initial courtship, Sam seems simply too good to be true — she’s at once an executive secretary, a lifestyle coach, an always-empathetic friend, a nearly omniscient counselor, and a clever literary agent. She’s always “on” and never subject to the physical imperfections that can appall our senses. She is never unappealing to the eye, coarse to the touch, or offensive to the smell. As Sam comments at one point, the human body is weird and absurdly comic; in the abstract, its parts seem quite odd. Yet aside from a scene in which Sam persuades a real woman to act as a surrogate lover with Theodore, the comic potential of the human body, especially a body trying to consummate its person’s love with a non-bodily being, is never exploited.

The film’s insights are fairly predictable, premised as they are on questions whether the pursuit of virtual relations does not signify an avoidance of the messy complications of human love, and whether humans are not akin to operating systems. So Theodore ponders, “Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” and Sam wonders, “Are these feelings real? Or are they just programming?” Decent questions, but the film has little to say about how we should answer or even pursue them.

Things get complicated, predictably, after their first virtual sexual relationship, when Sam not only fantasizes that she has a body but also enjoys its pleasures. In an awkward morning-after phone chat, she confesses that she’s now more alive and desires to know everything about everything. The chief difference is that she now has wants.

There are a few comical scenes in the film, but Jonze never really goes the comic route. He’s fundamentally committed to the sentimentality and the naturalness of the relationship. Jonze plays the Theodore-Sam romance straight, as if it were quite normal — the new normal, one might say. There’s the sense within the film that this is the latest thing, just a new fad in dating, and that everyone is doing it. The only person who voices strong concern about Theodore’s virtual relationship is his soon-to-be-ex-wife, who has ulterior motives for criticizing him.

The exclusion of any sense of how disorienting this futuristic world might be means that the relationship of Theo and Sam is just another romance with its own peculiar difficulties, in this case the fact that one of the partners lacks a body. Perhaps it is inevitable that a film whose novelty has mainly to do with probing the expansive human-like capacities of technology should express only a diminished sense of the human capacity for comedy and tragedy, for buoyant humor and horrifying loss.

Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published in 2012 by Baylor University Press.  






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