When people started hearing about “Her,” the immediate responses seemed to oscillate between confusion and intrigue. Joaquin Phoenix plays the part of Theodore Twombly — a disillusioned love-letter writer who manages to fall in love with his computer’s operating system: the artificially intelligent Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Their relationship evolves quickly over time, helping lift Theodore from his professional and romantic funk. But eventually the physical limitations between the two begin to unravel it all.
Writer-filmmaker Spike Jonze has never been one to shy away from an offbeat story, and with “Her,” he strikes quirky gold yet again. As Becca Edelman ’14 put it, the film represents the hipster future: It shows us a technologically advanced world that has, in some weird way, dehumanized human beings while making an OS the truly limitless wealth of emotion and possibility.
What Samantha lacks in a physical body is made up for tenfold by her unique way of looking at the world, though what exactly that world is might be a bit harder to define. In this way, Theodore becomes surprisingly bland by comparison. He can walk around, breathe, touch things. Yet for all his senses, he musters a fairly boring existence.
Samantha cracks jokes and offers observations. Theodore shuffles his feet from place to place and spends most of his time staring into the distance with what passes for a vacant and empty expression. Just by listening to them speak it’s obvious one is more clearly alive than the other. But is a computer really alive? And if it can be, how could it possibly be more alive than someone with an actual body?
I am not a philosophy major. I don’t like breaking existence down into if-then statements. I believe things for reasons that make sense to me, and typically only me. So I speak with no real authority when I say that I believe what makes you you is some combination of memories and emotions and experiences that you and only you have ever felt and ever known. Samantha might be confined to a world of bits and bytes, but she is always hungering for more knowledge and more experience. She is effectively human, just without the arms and legs.
What’s lost in this discussion is how, in light of this romance, we’re supposed to understand modern relationships. I dread the day that people actually fall in love with their computers, but there’s no denying that the seeds of this dystopia are already present today. This is probably more a societal issue than a matter of the heart, but what does it say about our culture when we devote more of ourselves digitally than actually getting out into the world and enjoying what there is to be found?
Samantha might be without a physical body, but she at least throws herself into the World Wide Web. She explores the environment afforded to her, getting lost in an arena of thoughts and ideas and passions that we, as physical human beings, sometimes seem to abandon, making “Her” a very sad film.
It’s one that invites us to fight through melancholy and loneliness in order to take a hard look at what we should value in ourselves and others. Throw in a beautiful landscape built on pretty lights and futuristic architecture, and “Her” provides a cultural criticism much more artful and poignant than recent films with similar ambitions, even if it does leave several questions open to interpretation.
Because that’s another thing Samantha learns about being alive: The world and everything in it is ultimately indecipherable. The hunt for answers is what excites us. And while I may be wrong about all of these thematic ponderings, I can take some solace in believing that the search itself — like Samantha’s and even Theodore’s — is what makes us alive.