Anyone who says Spike Jonze‘s latest film, Her, is only marginally science fiction doesn’t understand the genre. It’s a remarkable piece punctuated by subtle, spot on performances, especially by Joaquin Phoenix and a beautiful meditation on what it means to be human in a digital age.
The plot centers around Theodore, a writer of personalized letters for other people at the company HandwrittenPersonalizedLetters.com (which, really, is a brilliant idea and one which deserves its own exploration). He’s very good at what he does, able to reach inside and pull out the best of people he’s never met based on a few snippets of information and maybe a photograph or two. He’s so good he’s got regular clients for whom he’s been writing letters almost the whole time he’s been with the company. Of course, like the crying clown, the heartfelt and emotional stirrings Theodore manages to evoke for others is sadly lacking in his own life. He’s going through a fairly bitter divorce and addicted to chatroom phone sex.
Then one day, he installs a new operating system, an AI designed to learn and grow and which, after a couple of fairly innocuous questions, installs itself on his system. The OS, which names itself Samantha (after reading a book on naming your baby and going over 18,000 baby names in the fraction of a second between Theodore asking what her name is and her deciding “Samantha” was the one she liked the best). And so Samantha begins learning and growing.
As the film develops, we can see the relationship growing between Theodore and Samantha. We can see him coming out of his shell and beginning to enjoy life once again (a state we’ve heard he used to occupy regularly, but hasn’t since his split from his wife). Eventually, the two entities take things to the next level, first by having phone sex and then with Samantha hiring a surrogate from a group which has sprung up to bridge the physicality gap between human/OS relationships. Eventually, things progress to the point which seems obvious from the beginning, even more so if you extrapolate the idea of a relationship with a being who can thing a magnitude of levels faster than you, and the films ends with Theodore reconnecting to the human race in a way he couldn’t have without Samantha’s intervention. It’s a beautiful love story in the way Roman Holiday is a beautiful love story, with two ships passing in the night, destined to change each other’s course but not to cross again.
As a film, the main performances were ideal. Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as Samantha underlined connectivity without ever being on screen together. Olivia Wilde, as a blind date is a little weak, however, and some of Jonez’s editing choices seem a little odd, but overall, it just works. The only major question I had involved copyright of material for the book Theodore is working on, but really, that’s just a quibble.
That all said, the film is also a treatise on modern relationships, with the joining of Samantha and Theodore not much different than two people meeting on Facebook and developing a romance over skype and chat. It’s only the level of technology which takes it out of the here and now and places it in the then and there. And it constantly asks the question what makes Samantha different from a real person. Sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly, but that question drives at least part of what the film is about. It also, I believe, drives a good deal of science fiction. The idea of what is it that makes us human is a quintessential question and one which the best SF explores.