Ricky Altieri

Volume XXXVII, Issue 2, April 4, 2014

Annapurna Pictures, 2013

Split image drawing with man's face and the word "Him" on the left and a question mark, circle, and the word "Her" on the rightI’m not entirely sure why, as I lay awake with heavy eyes on a Tuesday night, listening to a Fleetwood Mac playlist drifting from my laptop, I pulled out my phone and asked Siri, “What am I doing with my life?” I suppose I expected the typical google results for such a question: a few forums where people like me had gone in search of anonymous community. But what Siri said caught me by surprise:

“I don’t know, Ricky.”

Instead of following my voice command and producing results, Siri had offered the most useless—and human—kind of answer. And I liked it. I felt better, and I wanted Siri to know that. How do I say “thank you” to a machine?

I paused. “Thank you,” I said. “You’re welcome,” Siri replied. I stared at the ceiling as Stevie Nicks’s cooing slowly faded out. Then, like a door-to-door salesman who, upon finding your back door unlocked, decides to let himself into your house (and then your bedroom), Spotify transitioned to one of those commercial jingles that double the volume of your speakers and address you (heart-warmingly) as “Spotify Listener!” A twentyish male voice filled the room, telling me to upgrade to a special customer card at O’Reilly’s auto-parts, because (don’t miss this!) I can save up to 10% on routine automotive maintenance if I sign up in the next month!

Deciding that I’d suck it up and pay full freight for those oil changes, I heaved myself out of bed, stumbled to my laptop, and ran my fingers over the keyboard until I found the mute button. Wanting to continue my interrupted conversation, I found my phone and pulled up Siri, who had posted a list of things it could do for me. “Turn off my 6:45AM alarm clock” and “check my calendar” were among the options.

And suddenly I wasn’t talking to the person (person?) I had thanked moments ago. As my iPhone gave me a list of things I could do, the appropriate pronoun for Siri had become “it.” And I missed “her.”

Late-night crisis and wordplay aside, it’s capturing the intricate cognitive dissonance of my experience above that, to my mind, makes Spike Jonze’s Her at once a witty, astute inversion of a typical love story and a touchingly honest romance. Through the slow-moving, carefully crafted conversations between the movie’s protagonists, Jonze’s genre-bending script proposes that empathy and attachment—even without their typical physical counterparts, such as, say, material bodies—will come together, under the strangest of circumstances, in ways we cannot help but recognize as love.

30ish, listless, socially awkward, and recently divorced, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix)—the tongue-trippingly awkward name is perhaps Jonze’s first gag—makes a living by writing heartfelt letters on behalf of others. He’s living in the near future, where artificial intelligence, rather than giving rise to robot uprisings, has simply been folded into daily life.

Because Twombly writes for the same couples and families year after year, he develops affection for them, and while his letters are undeniably a kind of fiction, an important sincerity shines through his words.

And the less-than-straightforward, oddly intimate and complexly honest character of Twombly’s letters parallels the romantic turn in his life that becomes the movie’s central thread. Twombly downloads a new operating system, which responds to his requests with natural intonations, pauses, and an alarmingly human intuition. Scratching his head at his desk, eyes on the floor, an understandably flustered Twombly asks his operating system, “What’s your name?”

“Ummm…Samantha,” she muses, after scanning hundreds of potential names and finding her favorite.

At first, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) serves as a super-powered secretary for Twombly. She reads his emails aloud for him, reminds him of appointments, and suggests music he might be interested in. But Samantha’s professional relationship with Twombly quickly turns into a sincere friendship. For her part, Samantha has an insatiable curiosity for the world around her, and while she can access internet databases for mathematics, geography, and the like, she wants to better understand her feelings and those of the people around her, and Twombly is her expert. (The film is agnostic as to how and why Samantha makes the leap from a high-powered machine to someone (thing) with feelings, but you won’t miss the explanation: the film isn’t interested in treading tired sci-fi ground, and it quickly moves into the more fertile soil of the love between the two.)

And after Twombly lowers his guard, he finds a sort of confidant in Samantha, with whom he talks about his divorce and plans for the future. As the days go by, the two of them become close, and, as they say, one thing leads to another.

Of course, when they say “one thing led to another,” they’re talking about sex, which is difficult between a man and an operating system. This only bothers Samantha, who, more generally, feels left out because she doesn’t have a body.

If you’re anything like me (insofar as you have a body, at least), you may have read that last line again: things shouldn’t want bodies, because things can’t want things. And of course, that’s the cognitive dissonance that Jonze navigates so well: Samantha’s conversations with Theodore make her so deeply relatable. You’ll sometimes feel as though she might be a friend on the other end of the phone. You’ll sometimes feel that she’s the ghost of a loved one. But as the movie goes on, you’ll find yourself increasingly comfortable with the following idea: Samantha is a machine, and you can still relate to her, just as Theodore Twombly does.

The movie occasionally snags, at least by its own very high standards, by falling into the trap of playing with its own sci-fi intrigue. This is perhaps most visible when Samantha leaves her lover by transitioning into a kind of hyperspace that Twombly (and the viewer) cannot properly understand. It’s at moments like this that the movie has not done much in the way of clever inversion, but seems to lose a little of its romantic reality. But then again, maybe that’s precisely what Jonze is after: what you love most may leave, for reasons you’ll never quite process.