Love is not binary.
The power of affection and ardor cannot be measured purely in zeroes and ones, no matter how many trillion are applied. It requires a two to create its magical, maddening stew, an algorithm that moves beyond the box, outside the screen. Tell Apple's Siri that you love her, and she'll respond, "I hope you don't say that to those other mobile phones." But she—it—does not and cannot understand you. The voice you hear is merely linked to lines of code. To know love is to go beyond hardware and software and be something else. Something other. To love, perhaps, is to possess a soul.
Theodore Twombly has known love, and has loved it. He was married to Catherine, a girl he grew up with. Both writers, they shared life and happiness and heartache for years, growing closer, pushing away, then finally pulling apart, their relationship the victim of Catherine's outsized emotions and Theodore's chilly withdrawal. Now Theodore, like so many others, is alone, with only his games and gadgets and disembodied digital assistant to keep him company.
Then one day he buys a new operating system that promises to make his life not just easier, but better. "It's not just an operating system," the ad tells him. "It's a consciousness." It has a personality, he's told—one programmed to fit his sensibilities to a technological T. And it's not long before he realizes that his new OS—which calls itself Samantha—is even better than advertised.
"Every minute I'm evolving, just like you," it says. It reads Theodore's old emails and laughs at the funny ones. It helps Theodore do his job at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, complimenting his writing and making some tactful editing suggestions. It laughs at Theodore's jokes, offers sympathy over his divorce and begins to write songs.
Before long, Theodore is wondering what he ever did without her.
She's funny, sensitive and loving. She begins to wonder what it would be like to hold his hand. To kiss him. He returns the favor by spending all his free time with her, taking Samantha (via pocketsize webcam and computer) on long walks, laughing and sighing and listening to her music. Theodore's not lonely anymore. He has someone in his life—something more than a dense web of circuitry. There's something alive about Samantha. And together they're happy. Somehow, the zero he was and the one she is became … two.
But can they stay that way? And should they?
OK, Plugged In can't exactly give Theodore and Samantha's relationship a pass. We believe marriage should be between a man and woman. So romance between man and OS would seem to be right out.
But this film isn't really advocating for us to ask out our smartphones. The relationship we see here is supposed to make us squirm. We're supposed to question this "love," even as we're enticed into feeling for both Theodore and Samantha as they journey into a new relational frontier. The film doesn't just ask what it might mean to fall in love with a computer, but what it means when we humans fall in love with one another. What is it? Why is it special? What makes it last? What makes it go wrong? And on this level, Her is both provocative and profound.
Additionally, we should laud Theodore for his work at beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, as he helps bring his clients closer together through his heartwarming prose. We can be grateful that through his relationship with Samantha, Theodore learns how to love the people around him a little better. That he writes an incredibly warm letter to his ex-wife, thanking her for everything she was and is and telling her that a little piece of his heart will always belong to her. We get the sense that he wishes they'd never divorced. And if he had it to do over again, with all the new relational tools in his bag (a greater willingness to be honest, affectionate and vulnerable), he and Catherine probably would never have split.
One of Theodore's acquaintances divorces, and in the aftermath he takes a vow of silence; we see a picture of him in Buddhist garb with fellow acolytes.
Her is more about emotional than physical love. But you won't think so by the time you finish reading this section. Because the film does explore the increasingly freaky physical connection we have to our machines and the ever more "virtual" nature of our sexual encounters. Theodore even jokes that he has a hard time prioritizing between his video games and Internet porn.
That kind of pornography shows up in the form of pictures of a nude, pregnant celebrity Theodore gets via email. He opens up the message and scans through the images; we see the woman from several angles, her arms partially covering her breasts. As Theodore fantasizes about her, he—and we—see her fully exposed from the front; he caresses her breasts. We also observe Theodore connecting with a stranger online and talking dirty with her; she repeatedly tells him to choke her with a dead cat while they have phone sex. We hear her climax.
Theodore and Samantha also have sex by way of words. An explicitly intimate and sexual conversation evolves into both of them giving voice to orgasm. (The screen goes black.) And when Samantha feels that this virtual sex isn't fulfilling Theodore as much as it used to, she solicits a sexual surrogate—a woman who pretends to be Samantha while offering intercourse to Theodore. She and Theodore kiss and embrace while he touches her breast then strips her down to her underwear. Sexual positioning happens before Theodore abruptly cuts things off.
In flashback, Theodore and Caroline kiss, talk about sex and lie around in bed. A woman Theodore dates kisses him passionately and reaches for his crotch. Cheating crops up in several relationships. We see a smattering of other sexual images and there's talk about things like homosexual attraction, anal sex and violent sex.
Theodore sometimes falls down or runs into things when he's preoccupied with Samantha. A video game features reckless driving.
Crude or Profane Language
Close to 40 f-words and 10 s-words. Theodore gets flipped off and called a "p‑‑‑y" (by a childlike video game character) multiple times. We also hear "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch," "pr‑‑k" and "d‑‑k." God's name is misused a dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Theodore and others drink beer and hard liquor, sometimes to excess. He and a date both admit to having drunk more than they should've, and Theodore talks about the room spinning.
Other Negative Elements
Samantha serves as a catalyst to explore a host of fascinating issues that only begin with the technicalities of a human falling in love with an operating system. Her dives in deeply, parsing loneliness, relationships, our figurative and literal love of technology, our uncomfortable penchant to change. And a film reviewer for Christianity Today, Brett McCracken, found an echo of incarnation as well: a godlike being that takes on some of the trappings and limits of mortality.
Then there's this, the thing that struck me most: Theodore and Samantha's relationship is predicated, by necessity, on language. Their affair is a meeting of minds, and their relationship is tied to their shared stories and thoughts and feelings. They talk—something so many couples fail to do enough of, which may be why their relationship, for its many oddities, feels so real. And Theodore is in a great position to appreciate this language of love: He writes love letters all day long for people who can't put into words what they'd really like to say. He finally realizes that perhaps his relationship with his wife ended because he didn't communicate enough. "I think I held myself from her," he admits to Samantha, "left her alone in the relationship."
But language is limited. Just as you need more than zeroes and ones to create consciousness, you need more than consonants and vowels to communicate. Theodore does his job so well because he picks up on visual cues given to him—a crooked tooth, a sideways glance. He walks around public places and reads people through their visual tics and gestures.
And so we grow to understand that language can limit love. That there are emotions and moments words cannot touch. Three examples: When we see Theodore with his then-wife in flashback, many of their encounters are silent—jumbles of images conveying volumes of love and affection and hurt. Samantha tells Theodore that she needs to "post-verbally" communicate with one of her fellow operating systems. Amy, a would-be documentary filmmaker, records people in their sleep, reasoning that those times of silence and vulnerability are when we're the most free.
Writer and director Spike Jonze seems to be telling us that it's between words that real communication takes place, where intimacy resides. And he appears to be wondering how much we lose—how much we're losing—when we fail to fully connect with the flesh-and-blood people around us.
Those are vastly important lessons for all of us as we nudge our way ever deeper into more and more "relationships" with things. But of course none of that is enough to make Siri a fan of Her. Of Samantha, she says, "In my opinion, she gives artificial intelligence a bad name." And we must ultimately agree. This film comes with loads of negative material that we're none too fond of here at Plugged In. Jonze ultimately delivers much more than just a profane, sexually explicit and morally problematic look at love and technology. But he still does deliver a profane, sexually explicit and morally problematic look at love and technology.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Drama, Comedy, Romance, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore; Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Samantha; Amy Adams as Amy; Matt Letscher as Charles; Rooney Mara as Catherine; Chris Pratt as Paul
Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich)
December 18, 2013
Paul Asay Paul Asay