Warning: Potential Spoliers Ahead!
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. He sits at a pristinely organized desk in a pristine and sterile cubicle that’s located within a pristine and sterilized office where other letter writers ply their trade. The letters he writes are addressed to strangers and written on behalf of strangers. Theodore has been writing on behalf of some of these clients, if we may call them that, for years. He dictates the letters to a software that transcribes his words and produces a final document that appears to be handwritten.
When he’s checked out for the day, Theodore gets on an elevator and inserts the earpiece from his smartphone. He asks it to “play a melancholy song,” and in less than a second his command is met.
A melancholy song is fitting. For someone with a romantic attachment to the art of letter writing, these opening scenes can leave you despondent. The most sacred of emotions and actions have been outsourced and expressions of love and longing have lost authenticity because they come from a complete stranger
A handwritten letter is a unique treasure in that it does not strive for efficiency or even necessarily clarity, but instead for vividness. In however many words it may take, letters are confessions of very deep sentiments that we typically guard closely, conveying insecurities and vulnerability and absurd aspirations. We write someone a letter only if we trust them enough to show our scars and silly thoughts. We write to someone if they’re worth the effort of picking up a pen and paper.
The world that Spike Jonze has created in Her is one in which people do not have to expend effort in order for their needs to be met because they can rely on technology to satisfy most of their desires. It’s an intriguing world to look at as realized by Jonze. It looks like what living inside a Macbook might be like. The colour schemes are overwhelmingly simple, but with enough variety to avoid being bland. Nothing is out of place and in the major metropolis that Twombly inhabits, there is no litter and no immediate hints of diversity. Everything on the surface is safe and sterile.
Theodore is in the middle of a divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara) and as a result is deeply depressed and unsatisfied. He discovers an operating system with aritifical intelligence designed to evolve and adapt. Twombly gives his operating system a female identity who names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and immediately she begins to grow.
In the early stages of their relationship, she meets his every need and makes his life easier. Samantha assists Theo in getting through a difficult stage in a video game he’s been trying to beat, but a pesky alien/toddler hybrid voiced by Jonze stands in his way. She even begins to spruce up his writing.
It’s striking that the most intriguing aspect of a film that’s so focused on technology is actually the human face, specifically that of Joaquin Phoenix and it’s this instrument, the thing we supposedly look away from the most as we become more immersed in technology, that tells the story. Pheonix is acrobatic in switching between perplexity, amusement, and melancholy. He moves back and forth between all three in a scene equally tragic and hilarious when he engages in cybersex with a woman in a chatroom. All we see throughout is the face of Theodore, the very picture of awkwardness in describing what he’ll do with a dead cat (just see the movie).
As his relationship with Samantha develops, Theodore is gleeful and Pheonix’s smile is believably genuine for an actor with a reputation for intensity and strangeness. We see a contrast in this face when Theodore becomes awash in memories of Catherine. Their relationship is human and therefore imperfect and sometimes ridiculous. They wrestle each other to the ground out of affection and do annoyingly twee things like put parking cones on their heads and run at each other in a joust.
During these memories, the sense of longing in Theodore is palpable. It’s clear that he and Catherine have hurt one another, but there is something there that still leaves him with a deep sense of loss. From his wide sorrowful eyes and pursed lips, it’s clear that despite his initial joys of Samantha, Theodore’s needs are unfulfilled.
There’s a scene about thirty minutes into the film when Theodore lays in bed talking to Samantha, who has been reading through tabloids. “I want to be as complicated as these people,” she says. If Her says anything about our relationship with technology, and there’s a lot that can be read into this film, it’s that we humans are more than just simple machines whose needs can be met through a series of inputs and outputs. We’ll occasionally want things but not be sure why. We’ll say stupid things and again not know why.
We are not always perfect at meeting one another’s needs, a fact made clear by the messy human relationships in this film, but we do need each other. We do want to be heard and valued by each other and the fact that we can struggle to give that sense to one another perhaps makes it all the more valuable.
When Theodore sits at his desk writing his letters, his face changes again. The silly little sentiments he sticks into the messages of strangers make him elated. The lovers and partners on behalf of whom he writes these letters are doing a very human thing, spilling their needs and emotions in hopes that another will care. It’s too bad they don’t do it themselves.
There’s no utilitarian value in these words and declarations, but there is some intangible value that we can’t stand to be without. It’s a simple message, but one worth heeding, even if the film may take longer than it needs to in conveying it.
It’s not that technology has no place in our lives or that it’s incapable of fulfilling certain desires. It’s just that humans are a little more complex and irrational. We do strange things like write long letters.