After initially seeing the trailer, I was excited to see this movie. I am a fan of “Being John Malkovich” so I anticipated another crazy episode in a surrealistic, Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman universe. “Malkovich,” for those who don’t know, was about a puppeteer who discovered a way to crawl inside the actor John Malkovich’s mind and control him. Much of that film cleverly reinvented itself on the spot thereby eliminating any sense of predictability (which I thoroughly enjoyed). In “Her” Jonze abandons Kaufman’s surrealism and adopts a more straightforward approach. Unfortunately, as surrealism exits, predictability and just, plain weirdness ensues. And when I say “weirdness,” I don’t mean the cool kind.
Set in Los Angeles in the uncertain future, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a ghostwriter for family letters, postcards, and the like. He essentially acts as love surrogate expressing heartfelt sentiments in place of those who hire him. So, for example, a husband who is too busy on a business trip to send his wife a postcard will hire Theodore’s company to do it for him. And, because Theodore’s empathetic skills are off the charts, he can look at photos of his client and significant other and create a touching message that is specific to their relationship. He is so good at his job that his manager Paul (a very subdued Chris Pratt) tells him, “You are part man and part woman.”
Theodore struggles with anti-social tendencies and downright loneliness due to the separation of his marriage. A regular night for him consists of playing video games and calling phone sex operators. So it comes as no surprise that he buys the latest technology, known simply as OS1, a digital secretary of sorts designed to meet his everyday needs.
The most interesting dynamic of this film has already been revealed in the trailer; that is, he develops feelings for his OS1 Samantha (an especially sultry Scarlett Johansson). Samantha’s profile is designed during a funny scene where Theodore answers several psychological survey questions, one of which involves his relationship with his mother. Why the fuss? According to the advertisement, OS1 is not like other computer programs. It is AI and fully conscious. Therefore, Samantha has a personality with a full range of desires and emotions. The audience gets to the first encounter a little too quickly for broader character development. But the chemistry between Phoenix and Johansson are undeniable and oftentimes adorable.
The look of “Her” is very unique. The 1940s-era costume design is juxtaposed with a futuristic, Los Angeles cityscape along with advanced technological accoutrements that invoke a feeling of something familiar and something new. Jonze plays it smart with the way the technology in the film is utilized; that is, they are not centerpieces to the story, they are the periphery. Theodore, and by extension human relationships, is really the centerpiece to the film (as it should be). Of note as well are the washed out pastels that comprise the color scheme of the film. This particular detail is very clever as it suggests an anemic quality endemic to personal, human interactions in a techno-futuristic society. It almost seems as if everyone in the future all agreed that colors, like relationships, are just too much work to enhance.
I mentioned that this movie was predictable. As Theodore and Samantha begin to learn more about each other, they fall in “love.” Gee, an anti-social loner falls for a simulated woman? Never saw that coming! Initially, I thought the film would utilize this plot point to define and discuss the meaning of love and relationships; and, to a certain extent, it does. The problem, however, is “Her” draws all the wrong conclusions and thus disappoints anyone looking to find substantive answers to these issues. For example, early on Theodore describes the hole in his heart that he feels from being separated from his wife. But it’s clear that he believes chasing infatuation is the solution to his emptiness when, in reality, the only thing that can fully satisfy a person is God (Psalm 103:5).
The apostle John tells us that we must love each other because love comes from God and He loves us (1 John 4:7, 11). So, as Christians, we know that all biblically loving relationships presuppose one key characteristic: they are between two persons. “Her” flouts this dynamic and co-opts eros or infatuation for agape or sacrificial love. That is, whatever satisfies Theodore’s desires he will “love” regardless if it is a person or a computer program. In Theodore’s case, he develops feelings specifically because the OS1 caters to his needs. This is an entirely selfish relationship more akin to falling in love with a porn star from a favorite movie because she seems nice. I believe that one of the reasons pornography is so rampant among men is because the women in those movies are essentially worshiping at the feet of their master. In other words pornography is designed to fulfill the viewer’s idolatrous fantasies. It caters directly to the perverted cravings of self-satisfaction.
John says that, “everything in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – comes not from the Father but from the world” (2:16). In other words everything that caters to the satisfaction and elevation of the self is ungodly. Once our desires become perverted (that is, they are no longer in keeping with God’s purposes), loving relationships can be between a man and a computer. Same sex marriage can become a civil rights issue. Murdering infants in the womb can become women’s rights. Anything and everything goes. In a roundabout way, the apostle Paul speaks specifically to Theodore when he describes men’s perversion of God’s plan for love as abandoning the natural function of the woman and burning in their erroneous desires (Romans 1:27). Interestingly enough, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore’s ex, seems to be the only one who gets this. Once Theodore confesses that he is dating his OS1, she tells him, “You’ve always wanted a wife without the challenges of anything real!” And that’s just it. Theodore’s relationship with his computer is not real love.
Catherine’s reaction to Theodore is the film’s greatest simultaneous potential and failure. For, while the film promises further insightful commentary on Theodore’s error, Catherine immediately disappears and the plot veers right back into the trite Hollywood nonsense of infatuation and fleeting satisfaction. The audience must painfully watch Theodore engage in phone sex with Samantha, which, ironically hearkens back to his ridiculous phone sex experiences with strangers at the beginning of the film. Only now, for some unknown reason, it’s supposed to be meaningful. Samantha blissfully reveals that she feels like she has “woken up” after their simulated encounter, as if to suggest that sex induces enlightenment. And yet, as they continue on in their “relationship” they both take turns feeling out of place. Finally, Samantha decides to leave Theodore for some ambiguous reason, something about living between spaces. But everything will be okay she says, as hopeful music swells, because she has evolved and is grateful for her experiences with Theodore. This is utter garbage masquerading as romantic nobility.
By the way, you don’t have to be a Christian to see how Jonze’s script fails his characters. The audience wants Theodore to get his romantic act together and take back control of his life. But all he ends up becoming is a perennial victim of infatuation’s fickle nature. Sure, he ends up with Amy (Amy Adams), the one he so obviously should be with in the first place, at the end of the movie. But it’s only because he is tossed to and fro by the waves of everyone else’s decisions. Catherine left him. Samantha leaves him. Even a blind date (Olivia Wilde) calls him a “creepy dude” before leaving him. The movie could have played so much better if Theodore had come to the realization that he was simply pretending with Samantha and unplugged her to be with Amy. And there’s a moment in the film where it seems as if that’s exactly what will happen. But Theodore can never rise to the occasion. All he can do is slip into the role of second fiddle to Samantha’s whims. Therefore, once Samantha is gone and Theodore creeps over to Amy’s door, you have to wonder whether Amy will soon see Theodore for what he is: A creepy beta-male with nothing to offer.
As I mentioned, I really wanted to like this movie. But its potential ultimately sinks under the weight of the same, tired Hollywood view of love that glorifies experience and forgets about sacrifice. For too many scenes of a sexual nature I cannot recommend this movie to believers. “Her” is rated R for language, nudity, and graphic sexual content.