Romancing the Phone
Finding love with an Operating System named Samantha

Joaquin Phoenix in Her (Annapurna Pictures)


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.