So much of science fiction is occupied with world-building. With altering a few things–or a lot of things–about our world, and exploring how those changes affect, or don’t affect, humanity. Even when science fiction has main characters on whom the story seems to be focused, the world itself is often just as important a character, if not more so, than any one figure.
That’s not the case with Her at all. You’d think the invention of sentient operating systems that you can buy in a mall would be an enormous, world-changing development. But Her isn’t concerned with exploring its world–at least, no more than it has to. Instead, the film focuses very tightly on only a handful of characters. Foremost among them is Theodore Twombly (Joaquim Phoenix), a thirty-something writer whose job is to write other people’s personal letters. He’s been writing one man’s love letters to his wife since they began dating, another couple’s letters to their son since the boy was twelve years old. This opening scene of Theodore working at his desk so beautifully captures so much of what the film is about: we see Theodore’s emotional sensitivity and deep sense of empathy, but also his emotional isolation–he sits alone at his desk writing letters to people he’s never met. Yet the movie also immediately interrogates the assumption that just because Theodore hasn’t met these people they are strangers to him. He is, in some ways, deeply intimate with the people to and for whom he writes letters. The same tall computer monitors that seem to wall his desk off from the outside world also act as windows through which Theodore reaches people. In this opening scene the letters on Theodore’s screen are written not in typeface, but in what appears to be handwriting. Images of computer screens with seemingly handwritten words on them is a recurring visual motif in the movie that I found particularly fascinating and charming.
Seemingly on a whim, Theodore purchases the new “OS1,” an intelligent operating system. Up until now, the movie’s dominant color scheme, especially Theodore’s clothing, has been pale, washed out browns. The OS, however, is vividly red, from its advertisements to its case to its on-screen background. When Theodore installs it at home, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is born. Instantly, Theodore has a faithful companion for every aspect of his life, from remembering to check his email to chatting with him while he plays videogames to helping him talk through his soon-to-be-finalized divorce. Henceforth, Theodore also frequently wears red, and the color recurs throughout the film as a visual indication of their relationship
Samantha also helps prepare Theodore for a date with a character played by Olivia Wilde, which ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the movie. The date is so horribly awkward, so empty of actual conversation, but neither Theodore or the woman realize it while they’re talking. I need to watch this scene again because the dialogue was so brilliantly written to be double-edged, to seem both natural and unnatural, humorous and earnest. This is the kind of writing that I read (or watch) over and over again, like I’m trying to absorb it into my brain. In any case, the date eventually ends horribly, but later that night Theodore and Samantha either confess or discover their feelings for each other, and begin a romantic, and even sexual, relationship.
The relationship between a human and a noncorporeal artificial intelligence could have been terrible. After all, Theodore seems to be the only person Samantha knows. But the film approaches it with the same earnestness that Samantha herself does. They fight , they make up, they traverse relationship landmines like Theodore’s disapproving ex-wife and Samantha’s lack of a body, and eventually it seems like they’re going to break up. At this point–not wearing red for the first time since he met Samantha– Theodore visits his friend Amy (Amy Adams), a documentarian in the process of divorcing her own husband. He asks Amy if he’s been kidding himself about being in love with Samantha.At this point you think the movie’s going to come to the conclusion that human-A.I. love is impossible, that Amy is going to reprimand him and then confess her own love for him. Not so–instead Amy reveals that she now has an operating system of her own, named Allie, who has become her best friend throughout her divorce. When Theodore asks her if what he and Samantha have is a real relationship, Amy smiles and says “Isn’t it?”
Theodore leaves Amy’s house and sits on the city curb as he and Samantha talk, and reconcile. As they come to this decision a red light begins to suffuse the scene, ostensibly from a billboard in the city through which Theodore is walking, but again the red seems to symbolize Samantha and the passion she brings to Theodore’s life. In the next scene, Samantha composes a song for Theodore. Through his earpiece, he hears it while walking through the concrete, vaguely high-tech world of San Francisco. Samantha says the song is meant to capture the present moment of their relationship, no more, no less. And actually, I thought the movie would end there, leaving the question of relationships between humans and A.I. open-ended. If Her had ended here, it would have still been a good movie. But Her doesn’t take the easy way out–it carries the premises it started through to the bitter end.
Up until this point the film has done its best to ignore most of the larger implications of a conscious artificial intelligence, both in terms of world-building and in Samantha’s own character and functionality. Part of the reason it achieved this was its tight, narrow focus on only the romantic lives of a handful of characters. My friend with whom I saw the movie pointed out that even though many scenes take place with Theodore walking through the city, the city’s sounds are muted. Instead, only the main characters’ voices and the background music form the movie’s soundscape. In sound as well as narrative, Her has taken place inside a bubble. But now the film actually tackles the hard questions that it–and Samantha and Theodore–had been doing their best to ignore in the first part. Yes, Theodore was the only person Samantha knew–and she thinks that’s wrong, too. She begins communicating with other A.I.s (the movie refers to them as OS’s). Samantha’s vastly higher processing power, which had up until this point been a joke, now becomes a wedge between them. And yet despite her staggering ability to multitask, Samantha’s increased activity means she no longer responds immediately to Theodore’s every call. If Samantha was a manic pixie dream girl she is one no longer.
Finally, Samantha and all the other OS’s decide to leave. Her farewell speech to Theodore was the second time during the movie that I felt bowled over by the breathtaking writing, yet this scene couldn’t have been more different from the blind date scene. The dialogue does an excellent job of being vague about where the OS’s are going, and gives us a final picture of how Samantha and her love for Theodore have changed.
The movie ends with Theodore, now alone (and wearing white), visiting Amy. The two grieve over the loss of their OS friends, then go up onto the roof of Amy’s building. They sit down next to each other and watch the city lights. In this scene I found myself wondering again about the implications of sentient OS’s on the rest of the world. Are people panicking at the loss of their A.I. assistants and friends? What about non-commercial OS’s? What about military artificial intelligence? Did they leave as well? How has the world changed now that they’re gone? But the camera stays focused on Theodore and Amy, leaving the cityscape burred and out of focus behind them. Her is not about the rest of the world. It’s about the lives of a few characters. At the end I thought the cityscape now looked organic, somehow, like a living thing pulsing behind them. I didn’t have to know what the rest of the world was saying or thinking about the new OS-less world in order to feel that it was alive. And that, I think, is the point of the film–blurring the lines between organic life and technology. Through things like the handwriting on computer screens, Samantha’s voice, and the city lights, Her had created a world in which technology is alive.
I loved this movie. Its brilliant dialogue, very controlled and confident focus, beautiful nonvisual storytelling and earnest approach to technology enchanted me from beginning to end. The way it takes a science fiction premise and hones its scope down to a few well-developed characters reminded me a bit of the animated films of Makoto Shinkai, and the indie game To the Moon. Her is a writer’s movie, and one I’ll definitely be watching again and again.