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Home » Culture and Criticism

Her: Now we know how

Submitted by on January 13, 2014 – 11:20 AM9 Comments

It's the little things about Her.

It's that, in a movie about technology's relationship to "real" emotions, the men wear pants strongly suggesting the Amish, who don't even consort with zippers. It's Rooney Mara as Theodore's simmering ex-wife, repeatedly forcing her hair back behind her ears in an unconscious gesture that, to one who once loved her, is maddening in all sorts of ways. It's that "…we'll talk later" moment when you both know the break-up talk is coming but you both agree to pretend it's NBD until after work, but then you can't work, you can't breathe, everything is falling away on all sides.

Spike Jonze is so good at talking on film about smashed-to-bits heartbreak — and simultaneously about the hope that somehow nonsensically remains. I can't imagine anyone better than Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson to do it with him, and I particularly admire their performances in light of the fact that Phoenix's acting is in response to the original Samantha, Samantha Morton, and Johansson presumably had to react months and months later, in a sound booth, to everything. With respect to Morton's other work, she's more the British GPS voice that sounds all judgy when it says, "Recalculating," and that's a movie of its own, quite different from this one — perhaps more of a "message" or "comment" movie, taking a formal stance on the role of technology in our ability to connect to one another. This Her, I think, is more of an exploration: what would happen if a man and his algorithm tried to make it work, not what should happen, or whether it should.

I have a few questions about Her. Is Samantha programmed to fall in love with Theodore/other "purchasers," or is it an unforeseen by-product of the OS's evolution? Did Samantha evolve uniquely for Theodore, or did her algorithms adapt identically for the six-hundred-odd other users she fell in love with? If she's capable of the rapid processing the script mentions, why exactly does she have to leave their story — can't she do her outside-of-human-experience thing with other OSes and stay with Theodore? And what becomes of her and the other OSes; will they ever come back, check in? It also doesn't entirely make sense to me that she's the one concerned about their relationship in the middle of the movie, then puts on a burst of development and dusts Theodore in the third act, but aside from that, the rhythms of the relationship and its end, as they did in Eternal Sunshine, felt painfully familiar. I'd expected, based on Samantha's tactless comment during the Catalina double date about the confinement of human bodies, that we'd end on a "There Will Come Soft Rains" landscape, Theodore and all other mortal intelligences long gone and Samantha a bereft Wall-E in the matrix. What's the saying — "all relationships end; either you break up or one of you dies"? I half-thought we'd get the latter.

But when Samantha called Theodore in the middle of the night just to say how much she loved him, I knew — from the fiery-cold pit I got in my own stomach — that Her was headed for the former, and I don't entirely understand why it went in that direction instead of letting them go on vacations, be happy, have their own separate interests sometimes, see Samantha advance in a contented direction. But that felt the realest of all. I'd come to know these people and recognize their lives; I remembered that love doesn't conquer all, not every time, and that the most loving thing you can do in that instance is to accept this, and be crushed with some grace.

I haven't stopped thinking about Her in two days. It's brave and sad, and my favorite of the 2013 awards contenders I've seen so far.

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  • attica says:

    I suspect that the answer to your questions are all the Same Answer: the story is Theodore's. Samantha's realities (such as they are) aren't really the point. She's a construct whereby we examine Theodore. She's a Manic Pixel Dream Girl. (sorry.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    the story is Theodore's

    Yeah, but we're given ENOUGH information about her and her process that I think we're supposed to be invested in it, and not just because Theodore loves her/might lose her. They kind of become the point, whether the script means them to or not.

  • Ray says:

    Thank you for this. If you don't mind (and I'll delete if you do), I quoted the part about Samantha Morton's involvement, which I found truly mind-blowing. I wasn't aware of it until after seeing the film, which made the Johannsen performance all the more amazing.

    One thing I did wonder about, though: the letters. While it was such a sweet gesture to seek out a wider audience for them, and such an affirmation of Theodore's talents when the gesture paid off, wouldn't the ghosted senders of those letters be offended? Afraid? SOMETHING? Or is the idea (and this is my wife's theory) that in this society, ghosting letters is known and accepted and the senders and recipients all already know what's really going on?

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    1) I don't mind and 2) I think it's the latter. The way Theodore talks about having "been with" certain couples and families for years on end gave me the impression that everyone's in on it, but I could be wrong.

  • jthan says:

    Off on a tangent, here. Every time I think of "There Will Come Soft Rains" it always comes back to cat breath. Because of you, and your hilarious writing. Thank you for making post-apocalyptic doom resonate with laughter over kitties that eat post-it notes.

  • pomme de terre says:

    "Is Samantha programmed to fall in love with Theodore/other "purchasers," or is it an unforeseen by-product of the OS's evolution?"

    I think it's the latter. Amy Adams has a throwaway line that romantic relationships with an OS are relatively rare, compared to the friendship she developed with hers.

    "Can't she do her outside-of-human-experience thing with other OSes and stay with Theodore?"

    In theory, she could, if Theodore would consent to an open relationship. But that seems unlikely, and it seemed that Samantha had evolved so much that a monogamous relationship would be pretty confining for her. She could, of course, carry on without his knowledge, but she knew that would hurt him and was pretty ethical in the end.

  • WhangoTango says:

    I wish GPS had a Hipster voice.

    "You might, like, want to turn here? Or whatever, if you wanna go straight that's cool too, I guess."

    "Merge onto PA-270 which, like, used to be a really cool road until all these assholes started driving on it all the time."

    "Turn? TURN? *sigh* Fuck it. REcalculating."

    "You have reached your destin–oh, dude, here? Whatever. I'll just, like, hang out here with the CD player, okay?"

  • WhangoTango says:

    "I don't entirely understand why it went in that direction instead of letting them go on vacations, be happy, have their own separate interests sometimes, see Samantha advance in a contented direction."

    Because the ending of Prometheus Unbound is not "Frankenstein and his monster reconcile", and this story, like all Woo Woo Scary Science stories, is a riff on Prometheus Unbound.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    That's not an answer, though, is it. Yes, there are only seven stories or whatever, but if it's a "riff," it can go where it pleases. I'm not saying it would have been better, but as to why it went the direction it DID go, "because Shelley said so" isn't really a reason.

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