Cinema / In English / Portraits / Society / Visual Media

Her (2013): A Dissection of Love in the Modern Age

Her is a touching romance drama that tells the story of Theodore Twombly who struggles to cope with life after a painful divorce and finds love in his Operating System called Samantha. The film explores the themes of the complexity of love shared among human and artificial beings.

Set in a futuristic version of Los Angeles, we are introduced to Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), who works at an agency where his job involves writing “personalized” letters to loved ones. Fraught by his divorce, he lives alone in his large but empty apartment. On a whim, he decides to install an Operating System (OS). Theodore customizes the highly advanced program and, perhaps subconsciously, chooses for it to possess a female gender and voice, which gives birth to “Samantha” (Scarlett Johansson.)

HERTheodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) with “Samantha”(Scarlet Johannson)

At first amused and intrigued by his conversations with her, he finds himself pleasantly surprised by her human quality, and he slowly begins to fall in love with her. This new bond, full of warmth and understanding, is in stark contrast with Theodore’s prior encounters with the opposite sex which end on sour notes, namely those involving his ex-wife and another lady with whom he goes out on a date. His bond with Samantha, however, slowly morphs into a relationship – they walk through malls, talk to each other for hours on end – he even takes her out on a picnic date with his colleague. For a while, Theodore seems happy and hopeful about the future.

Samantha seems perplexed by the existential anxiety that engulfs her. Even though she tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to help Theodore with his own life by patching up his relationship with his ex-wife, her own insecurities about her lack of human form and identity take precedence. She discloses to him later that she has been having similar interactions with thousands of other people and has fallen in love with all of them, which leaves Theodore furious at her apparent betrayal. She begins to talk to other OS systems, notably a hyper-intelligent Buddhist modelled after the philosopher Alan Watts, and starts to reconsider her relationship with Theodore.

her-maara-rooneyCatherine(Maara Rooney) with Theodore on a rather heavy lunch date

The magic of the story lies in how the emotions are strung together in each scene. Van Hoytema’s use of close-ups leaves very little room for distraction and, while forcing us to focus on the expressions or actions of the characters, gives one the impression of being not a voyeur, but almost an invisible participant in the intimacies of these lives.

The music is breathtaking.  The original soundtrack composed by Canadian rock band Arcade Fire — the gloomy music Theodore listens as well as the songs that Samantha composes for him — seems to embody effortlessly the melancholy that comes with love including the loneliness that precedes it and the thought and process of losing it.

This film encapsulates perfectly what it means to love, which is essentially the ability to communicate. Theodore faced problems with his ex-wife, and they grew apart even though they were very much in love. Perhaps Theodore channels the frustration of his inability to communicate with his ex-wife into his job, where he pours his true feelings out to complete strangers. Even when he goes out on a date with his blind date, they have fantastic chemistry, but yet again words fail him and they don’t succeed in understanding each other – as an audience we aren’t even privy to her name.

Samantha on the other hand is funny, vivacious and more than satisfies Theodore emotionally and sexually. She also reflects a relatable human side to her wherein her insecurities involve not being physically present for him. This leads her to try and compensate in ways that he doesn’t even consider necessary – by finding a ‘surrogate lover’ to assume her form and fulfil his carnal desires. He is more than grateful for his conversations with her, which seem to fill him with a contentment that women in mortal bodies simply cannot give to him. Samantha finds herself in a similar position, her only hindrance being that she shares this bond with thousands of other people whose emotional barriers she easily penetrates.

Samantha’s development of her technological capacities leads eventually to her attaining a sort of ‘nirvana’ which symbolizes the ideal of love that humans may strive to reach, wherein one breaks the boundaries and strict rules we set ourselves with regard to love and the people we share it with. Love then becomes pure, free from jealousy, and full of compassion for all those who are touched by it.

HERAmy(Amy Adams), Theodore’s close friend, who also grows fond of an Operating System

For some, the film could be a critique of love in the time of modernity. In this world, the dependency on technology affects the lives of individuals to a point where they may prefer the simplicity of a relationship with an emotionally ‘perfect’ artificial being. The process of give and take in this situation is mostly one-sided, as opposed to a human relationship filled with compromise, disappointment and misunderstanding.  Even Theodore’s ex-wife accuses him of being unable to deal with his emotions in a natural human way when he reveals to her his relationship with Samantha.

If the ability to love were to be programmed into an OS, it would reflect a more complex version of the same ability possessed by human beings. The OS would probably prove to be more human than us, with their rational ability to view our behaviour with more perspective and understanding than most human beings do. Hence, one could argue that Samantha and Theodore’s relationship is more human than most human relationships in the sense that they present the ideal of what a relationship should be — learning to appreciate all that we see in a lover while forgiving them for all their shortcomings. Even though it is set in the distant future, it is not immensely different from the concept of love as it exists today. Through this hypothetical fantasy of a romance we may learn to be aware of the flaws and abilities within and among us, while trying to understand the power and universal nature of love.

Movie Details:

Directed and Written by: Spike Jonze

Cast:

  • Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly
  • Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)
  • Amy Adams as Amy
  • Rooney Mara as Catherine
  • Olivia Wilde as Blind Date
  • Chris Pratt as Paul
  • Matt Letscher as Charles
  • Luka Jones as Mark Lewman
  • Kristen Wiig as Sexy Kitten (voice)
  • Bill Hader as Chat Room Friend #2 (voice)
  • Portia Doubleday as Isabella
  • Brian Cox as Alan Watts (voice)
  • Spike Jonze as Alien Child (voice)

Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema (director of photography)

Music: Arcade Fire

Production Company: Annapurna Pictures

Produced by:

  • Chelsea Barnard – executive producer
  • Megan Ellison – producer
  • Natalie Farrey executive – producer
  • Spike Jonze – producer
  • Vincent Landay – producer
  • Daniel Lupi executive – producer
  • Samantha Morton – associate producer
  • Thomas Patrick Smith – associate producer (as Thomas P. Smith)

Running Time: 126 minutes

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