Romancing the Phone
Finding love with an Operating System named Samantha

Joaquin Phoenix in Her (Annapurna Pictures)


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.


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