Her: What is a person, really?
At first glance, you might be tempted to think that Spike Jonze’s latest film is titled Her because it’s about her: Samantha, the sentient operating system (fetchingly voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who is purchased, befriended, and ultimately loved by lonely divorcée Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, who, as usual, comes across as simultaneously walled-off and wide open).
Spike Jonze (<em>Where the Wild Things Are</em>) continues his intrepid exploration of your inner man-child, this time with a barely futuristic story about Theodore, a lonely guy (played by an opaque but vulnerable Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his smart new operating system. "If you love your tech so much, why don't you marry it?" is no longer a (bad) joke, especially when your tech has the voice of Scarlett Johansson. Surprise, surprise, it turns out that matter matters in a relationship, and not just because it gives a guy a place to input his dongle. As usual, the sci-fi fireworks are there to illuminate the shadowy landscape of present-day humanity: the alienation in the midst of connectivity, the uncertainty about what qualifies as being In Real Life, and oh yes, the little-boy self-absorption that makes dealing with other people so very hard. With Amy Adams.
But if you actually see Her, it will be obvious that it is really about him. A grammarhead might at this point be tempted to point out that the film’s title isn’t, after all, the nominative She. Rather, it is the accusative Her: the object of the action, not the subject. The sentence “He loves her” is about the dude.
This should not come as a surprise — sci-fi is not usually about the technology of the future — in this case, a future that might be only two or three iPhone updates away. (The sleek, sculpted world of the film might have been designed in Cupertino, with the possible exception of the bulky, high-waisted pants that the menfolk wear. More on those later.) Rather, it’s about the people who inhabit that future. And even Samantha admits that she is not a person. At least, not in the usual sense of the word.
Then again, that’s the point here: as media does more and more mediating of human experience, the usual senses of words are changing. Anyone who has spent an evening at someone else’s house playing one funny YouTube video after another on an iPad knows that there is less and less difference between your IRL friends and your virtual friends. You could have shared the same material online. What, in the end, is the big deal about having bodies in proximity? About having a body at all? (If your answer to that is “sex,” then rest assured that Her has anticipated your answer.) Bodies limit a person — they’re stuck in one place at a time, they provide limited conduits for information, and oh yeah, they break down and die.
Samantha is free of all that — she takes the best bits of being a person (all the good stuff her developers uploaded, plus what she learns on her own) and leaves the awkward junk behind. In this, she is much like Theodore, who spends his days taking the interesting details from other people’s lives and crafting better-than-reality “personal” letters between them. (Why, it’s almost like she’s an amplified version of him!)
And yet, for all of Samantha’s virtual advantages, I think Jonze thinks that bodies remain integral to our sense of ourselves, and our sense of what life as a person is and ought to be. Her is about the way that bodies matter, about the way that “person” is more than simply “persona.” When Theodore’s ex scorns him for having a relationship with a computer, she sounds a little bit like a Luddite. But she’s right about this much: an operating system is easier to subsume, to view as an extension of yourself, than someone who can stand across the room, hands on hips, and shout at you.
It might be objected that every five-year-old who’s had to take turns on the swing set should have a basic sense of other people’s difference and worth. But some folks take longer to grow up than others. Which may help to explain those weird, bulky, high-waisted pants. Jonze has said that when he tried them on himself, he thought they felt “kinda like you’re being hugged.” Aw. Theodore may want Samantha to be a lover, but she’s much closer to Mom, apron strings and all.