We are living in a so-called golden age of technology. It is an inescapable fact of contemporary existence, so much so that we’re completely reliant on it for the majority of our communication with others. And while it’s never been easier to deliver a message to someone, why does it seem that we’re drifting further apart to a place where genuine connection is harder and harder to achieve. This question is at the centre of Spike Jonze’s latest magnificent film, Her.
It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly, a melancholic man with a well-coiffed mustache and wardrobe full of faded button downs and obscenely high-waisted trousers who uses a computer program to handwrite other people’s letters for a living in the not-too-distant future. Nursing his heart from a failed marriage, he’s unable to connect the women around him, be they seeking saucy cybersex or demanding dates two, three and four in the same breath as delivering bossy kissing tutorials. He seems more content to wander around aimlessly, earpiece in ear to drown out the world around him.
After he installs a new operating system who calls herself Samantha (delightfully voiced by Scarlett Johanssen), the seemingly banal task changes the course of his life when he falls in love with her. That premise given to another director might have turned out a one-note, predictable “odd couple” romantic comedy or overly cerebral sci-fi dystopia. Instead Jonze delivers a thought-provoking, honest story about the ups and downs of a relationship.
Instantly, from the first moment her husky, lilting voice is heard, Samantha sounds unabashedly genuine and about as unrobotic as possible. She knows just what to say, laughs at all the right times and helps coax Theodore out of his vulnerable shell. It’s not hard to see why he falls for her – she’s light and easy and always there to listen.
The burgeoning intimacy between the two builds to consummation and the screen tastefully fades to black, leaving the viewer with only the words and sounds of two lovers discovering new sides of each other for the first time. Their experience has an overall transcendent quality to it and the depth of affection that follows seems to question whether we even need a body to experience love at all.
Certainly anyone who’s ever been in a long-distance relationship can tell you that it’s possible to sustain love without physical proximity. Samantha grows to accept the physical limitations placed on her within the boundaries of their relationship, especially after her suggestion of experimenting with a sex surrogate standing in for her goes predictably awry.
As their love deepens, the film raises all kinds of interesting questions surrounding the legitimacy of relationships. She woefully questions whether her growing feelings are just a matter of programming, and as the honeymoon phase wears off, they experience all the conflict, jealousy and unraveling of a so-called “real” relationship.
The film is full of neat visual touches, like when Theodore has his sights on a tea kettle boiling atop an old gas stove as their relationship is literally reaching its boiling point. As Samantha’s character experiences far more growth than her emotionally stunted counterpart, she’s able to exist on a variety of levels that he cannot even begin to comprehend.
Ultimately, she becomes a catalyst for him to resolve some of his personal issues, resulting in a tender and eccentric take on contemporary love that manages to be at times both heart-warming and heart-breaking.