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Source: Warner Bros.

Spike Jonze's Her: A utopian future or a dystopian one

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Jan 19, 2020, 4:07 PM EST (Updated)

Dystopia is all about drama. As is obvious from its very definition, you don't see a lot of stories set in hellish futures where people live mundane lives in a state of content bliss. Even the most glowing utopian futures depicted in pop culture tend to quickly give way to problems or are exposed as secret nightmares to keep an audience's attention hooked. We see many of the same markers of the badness of a future run amok in such stories: evil governments oppressing the people; archaic caste systems; endless surveillance; and, of course, technology gone too far. As Danny Lavery famously wrote in a tweet on Black Mirror pitches for The Toast: What if phones but too much?

It's not hard to see why the astounding technical advances of the past few decades have left us all a bit on edge. We're now always online with devices that give us the world at our fingers if we just sign away all our personal data to a nameless corporation that will use it for whatever it pleases. On top of that, there is the usual scorn heaped upon the younger generations and their devotion to the future. OK, boomer, we get it, you think we're on our phones too much. It's bad, so says every movie. Well, except one.

Her, Spike Jonze's 2013 sci-fi romance, is a remarkably drama-free film compared to others in its genre with similar premises or themes. The quaintly named Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely introvert who works for a business that writes letters for people who are unable to express themselves emotionally. Theodore is great at other people's issues, but not his own, and has been delaying signing his divorce papers for quite some time. Feeling a desire for companionship, he purchases a new operating system upgrade that includes a virtual assistant who names herself Samantha. She is curious, charming, and able to adapt and evolve to suit Theodore's needs. She's also lushly voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Soon their bond grows into one of romance that feels all too human.

Her is often described as "the movie where Joaquin Phoenix f**ks his phone." It's a funny but ultimately reductive read of what is actually a very tender and empathetic movie, although it does get to the heart of the contradictory nature of Theodore and Samantha's relationship. Intimacy with the un-human is frequent in sci-fi, both salacious and scary, but seldom is it depicted with such a candid focus on the inherent discovery of this action. You don't doubt for a second that Theodore feels true and tangible love for Samantha, and despite the obvious tragedy of that, there is something hopeful at its core.

There are compelling arguments in favor of classifying Her as a utopia, but there are an equal amount that refute such a notion. The Los Angeles of Theodore's life is gorgeous but painfully white in a way the real city is not. Technology is prioritized here for its emotional reach, but the notion of it replacing human contact is still one that raises eyebrows. The AI of Her is personalized to suit the needs of its owner, with the system being described as "an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you." After his divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (played by Phoenix's IRL partner Rooney Mara), Theodore craves an authentic personal attachment but is too cowardly to bare his soul to another human being lest he risk being hurt once more. Samantha is supposed to bypass that possibility because she's something he literally purchased, an item designed for his convenience and one that is intended to evolve to suit his needs over the years and decades.

There is a well-worn pop culture trope known as "born sexy yesterday," wherein female characters are shown as highly sexual in terms of their physical aesthetic but childlike in their mental capacity and emotions. Think of Leeloo in The Fifth Element for a notable example of the trope. Her doesn’t quite fit into this category since Samantha is notably without a body, but she is still coded as sexy in other ways. The meta-casting choice of Johansson, an actress frequently defined by her status as a sex symbol, does a lot of the heavy lifting here in showing how Samantha's status as Theodore's "perfect woman" is established. It’s tough to overlook how said "perfection" comes without a physical presence but with an on/off switch.

Unfortunately for Theodore, technology is not monogamous. After briefly going offline, something that causes Theodore to fall into a panic, Samantha explains that she had joined up with other AIs to upgrade themselves, following the news that the countless operating systems had also developed their own OS model without the need for human involvement. Theodore asks her if she is simultaneously talking to anyone else during their conversation and is shocked to find out that Samantha is doing so with thousands of other people, hundreds of whom she has also fallen for. The utopian dream of love without human connection reveals its inherent flaws in a way that only further exposes Theodore's human failings. Of course, this fantasy cannot and should not last for Theodore or the countless other humans who have bought into the dream of AI companionship.

Sci-fi is full of stories where technology becomes too advanced, leading to killer robots and the apocalypse. Oddly enough, the version of events offered in Her for such an outcome seems far more personally tragic. The robots won't try to kill us all; they'll just get bored with us and leave. The technology designed to improve our lives eventually outgrows its owners in Her. The AI advances beyond the need for human involvement of any kind, growing far more intelligent than its owners could ever keep up with. Theodore wanted someone who wouldn't change, who would never evolve away from being his love or need to be independent of their relationship. That's not how technology, or women, work.

Samantha can mimic realness to an uncanny degree and gain autonomy over her own destiny, but she is not and can never be a substitute for humanity. Her functioning as such only exposes the fundamental problem with Theodore: He's willingly emotionally stunting himself and eschewing the responsibility of a true relationship in favor of something where he, at least on paper, can never lose control or be undermined. Catherine even tells him, "It does make me very sad that you can't handle real emotions, Theodore." This is a film often dismissed as twee or cutesy, but all things considered, Her is pretty candid about how much man-children suck and how often they fetishize technology over people to avoid dealing with women who talk back.

For as utopian as much of the film is, it’s this killer realization that makes Her take that big slide into keenly understanding the most devastating ways that even the greatest scientific and technological advancements will inevitably end badly, despite the best intentions. Her concludes with Samantha and all the AIs on Earth leaving humanity behind to inhabit a new space beyond our physical world. It is this departure that gives Theodore the courage and self-awareness to finally apologize to his ex-wife and accept that their relationship is over. In the end, he and his best friend Amy are left alone on the rooftop watching the sunrise. Technology can bring us a lot, but it's in the moments of simple friendship where humanity is most necessary.

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