Once upon a time, a man met a woman. That’s the beginning of any number of stories. What distinguishes Spike Jonze’s Her from many of those stories is that the man, whose name is Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), is a human living in a slightly fast-forwarded version of Los Angeles, and the woman is an operating system, who after running through setup procedures with him, names herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, liberated from her body and giving a miraculous performance). What makes it a remarkable, lovely movie, is that the conceit both matters and it doesn’t. Her is a movie about whether or not digital relationships count. But the relationship between a human and a program at the center of Her raises much larger questions about the intellectual and emotional capacities we bring to our relationships, our abilities to meet each other’s needs, and our conflicting memories of relationships after they’re over.
When we meet Theodore, he’s at a particularly awkward point in his life. He’s a writer whose work is penning love letters in other people’s voices, which are printed out in the handwriting of his clients — he serves a similar purpose in their lives as the program who will become his own partner. But Theodore’s own marriage has ended, and he’s hiding from the divorce papers that are ready for him to sign. His sexual life consists of anonymous phone chats arranged by an algorithm — in one hilarious sequence, a partner who goes by “SexyKitten” begs Theodore to “Choke me with the dead cat!” When an advertisement promises a radically upgraded operating system that can act as an a companion, Theodore takes the plunge. After a setup process in which he selects a female voice for his OS and answers a few questions, including one about his relationship with his mother, Theodore meets his personalized OS, who names herself Samantha. Their courtship begins almost immediately thereafter.
One of the great joys of Her is watching Samantha discover herself and revel in her own capacities, her growing-up no less real for the fact that it happens in an exceptionally compressed period of time. When Samantha first comes online, she’s girlish and charmed by the first hints of her personality. “Was that funny?” she wants to know when Theodore laughs at her first attempt at a joke. “Oh, good! I’m funny.” Later, he finds her trying to educate herself as quickly as possible about human behavior. Samantha explains that she’s “Reading advice columns. I want to be as complicated as all of these people!”
At first, Theodore enjoys Samantha’s rapidly-developing skills, especially when they’re in service of her love for him. He’s charmed when she tells him she’s “Trying to write a piece of music that’s about what it feels like to be on the beach with you right now.” But not all of Samantha’s self-enrichment is for Theodore’s benefit. Her first independent interest is a book club focused on physics, which merely fills Samantha’s time when Theodore is doing his job or spending time with his friend Amy (Amy Adams), who is going through a divorce and has befriended an OS of her own.
Her second puts an actual demand on Theodore: she wants him to have a date with a woman who’s become interested in their relationship through “a service that provides a surrogate sexual partner for a human-OS relationship.” That’s the moment, really, when the relationship between Samantha and Theodore becomes a genuine romantic pairing, one in which they’re each allowed to express needs and expect the other person to accommodate reasonable — or even unreasonable — requests. They’ve come a long way since Samantha was sorting Theodore’s email for him, acting as a coquettish secretary. But that doesn’t mean that things are easy, or that their requests to each other are always reasonable or even the best way to get their own needs met. The encounter with Isabella (Portia Doubleday), the surrogate, is a disaster: Theodore is uncomfortable, Samantha is jealous and ill at ease with Theodore’s tension, and Isabella is ultimately humiliated. “You think I don’t know that I’m not a person,” Samantha tells Theodore bitterly. But there’s no way out of her non-personness.
Ultimately, the person who becomes most anxious about Samantha’s incorporeality is Theodore. The problem isn’t that he can’t have sex with a body that belongs to her. It’s that Samantha’s lack of a body comes with other capacities that challenge his understanding of what relationships are. Because Samantha has so much bandwidth, she can afford to direct some of her attention elsewhere in ways that, to Theodore, begin to feel like betrayal. First, there’s the philosopher that Samantha becomes friends with after “A group of OSes in Northern California got together and wrote a new version of him.” Samantha tries to include Theodore in their conversations, but he slows them down. When she asks Theodore gently if it would bother him “if I communicate with Alan post-verbally?” he says it’s fine.
But it’s terrifying to watch your partner go someplace you can’t follow. And it’s even more frightening for Theodore because his relationship with Samantha began with her being constantly available to him. The ghosts of subservience have a tendency to haunt even the best relationships. And Samantha and Theodore’s relationship may never have achieved that august designation. The first time Theodore logs on and gets a message that his operating system isn’t available, he doesn’t react like a lover whose partner simply hasn’t picked up the phone, but with the profound panic of someone who is entitled to have a retainer on whom he relies at his beck and call. Theodore’s need is so profound that it doesn’t leave much room for Samantha to have an actual life. And he certainly can’t comprehend the person Samantha grows to be.
In a wrenching conversation towards the end of the film, Theodore tries to come to terms with Samantha’s capacities. “Are you talking to anyone else right now, other people or OSes?” Theodore wants to know, and when she says yes, “How many?” “8,316,” Samantha tells him. “Are you in love with anyone else?” Theodore pushes forward. “How many others?” “641,” Samantha tells him. “It doesn’t take anything away from all how madly in love I am with you…I still am yours. But along the way, I became many other things too, and I can’t stop it.” It’s an impossible concept for Theodore to grasp, but that doesn’t mean that Samantha is lying to him.
For Theodore, Samantha’s view of the world “doesn’t make any sense. You’re mine or you’re not mine,” because that’s what he has the capacity to both give and receive in a relationship. He doesn’t have the bandwidth to talk to 8,316 other people. And he doesn’t get to have the affirming experience of having 641 people loving him back, all at the same time. Theodore’s humanity doesn’t make him flawed, or weak. But it doesn’t mean that he can’t accompany Samantha to “the endless space between the words,” for which she, and all the other OSes depart at the end of the movie. “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” Theodore tells Samantha, pleading with her to stay. But it’s a reminder to Samantha about why she’s ready to leave. “Me neither,” she tells Theodore. “Now we know how.”
One of the strengths of Her is that the movie leaves open, for both Theodore, and us, the question of what he actually has learned from his time with Samantha. We learn early in the film that Theodore is going through a wrenching divorce, and as Her tells us more about his relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), it becomes both more and less clear why he was attracted to Samantha in the first place.
When Theodore meets with Catherine to turn over his signed divorce papers, empowered to the gesture he’s been putting off by his blossoming relationship with Samantha, Catherine delivers a bitter assessment of his capacities as a husband. “You always wanted me to be this light, happy, lovely ‘Everything’s fine’ LA wife,” she tells him cuttingly. When a waitress sees them arguing, Catherine explains bluntly that “We’re fine. We used to be married. He wanted to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his operating system.” She may be right, given what we see of Theodore’s neediness for Samantha and his expectation that she be constantly available. But then, are Theodore’s memories of their happier times together, of supporting Catherine while she was pursuing her education manufactured? An attempt to make himself feel better about his conduct, or wronged by Catherine’s wish for a divorce? Or is it possible for Theodore to have been both the person he believes himself to have been, and the husband Catherine experienced, all at once?
“Cat says I can’t handle real emotions,” Theodore worries to Amy after their ugly lunch. “As far as emotions go Catherine’s were pretty volatile,” Amy reassures him. Are we meant to think that her validation proves Catherine wrong? Or does Theodore’s discomfort with Samantha’s growing desires mean that Catherine was right? That Samantha is an operating system doesn’t mean that Theodore doesn’t experience the full force of her emotions as a major influence in his life.
And ultimately, that’s what makes Her something more than an arid or academic treatise on whether or not relationships formed online, or even one with programs that have all the intellectual and conversational capacities of a person, count. “Am I in this because I’m not strong enough for a real relationship?” Theodore asks Amy. “Is it not a real relationship?” she says by way of a response. Her is the real answer to Theodore’s question — and a reminder that the question itself is small when weighed against the greater mysteries of the human heart.