Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot.
When Spike Jonze tried to browbeat the BBC’s Emily Maitlis into saying she’d been moved by his sci-fi romance, she refused, later going online to give her verdict: “a sad, male fetish fantasy of a disembodied female who does his bidding”. This capsule review confirmed what many Newsnight viewers had suspected during that tortured interrogation: she hadn’t seen the film. For if Her is indeed a male fetish fantasy, it’s an odd one, presumably aimed at the same men who get a thrill from having their member sheathed in sandpaper – a dream in which a lonely man takes a punt on an artificially intelligent operating system only for said software to evolve, out grow him and leave to join a commune of hyper-intelligent programmes in the ether. Yes, that old male fantasy.
Indeed if Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha only exists to do Joaquin Phoenix’s bidding, as Maitlis deduced from a synopsis and a couple of clips, then it must be his desire that she be pushy and needy, the perfect partner for a commitmophobe damaged by the breakdown of his real world marriage. Consequently the Maitlis reading of Her makes very little sense when one actually watches the movie, but if we’re inclined to see it as an exploration of loss and anomie in a technocentric society, then it starts to cohere in front of our very eyes into an affecting and timely movie about the changing nature of relationships in a world where tech had allowed the atomised to talk to one another, fostering the illusion of intimacy.
That it’s a movie about technology subbing for real feeling is clear from the outset, whatever Jonze says to bait interviewers. Phoenix is a pedlar of false sentiments, a man whose job involves “writing” other people’s letters using software that mimics the client’s handwriting. Subsequently he’s au fait with synthetic emotions; facsimiles of feeling; and just as well, because Samantha is just that – code written to mimic human responses. We’re suitably intrigued by Jonze’s premise – the notion of a burgeoning relationship between man and software – to overlook our doubts. For example, when Phoenix decides his new OS should have a female VOICE does it automatically follow that it should have a female brain, or indeed female proclivities of any kind? How is gender and sexuality determined when an artificial intelligence has no chemical component, no biological imperative? Jonze doesn’t tell us, just allows the imagination to gloss over these questions and accept that because Samantha tells us she’s a woman, she is.
This metatexual bit of philosophy starts to matter as the movie progresses however, as it touches on the crucial question of whether the central relationship is little better than the junk sex that Phoenix procures from a fetish hotline. Ultimately, we’re inclined to think there’s little material difference: it’s all predicated on fantasy, there’s no real world component – the protagonists are little better than avatars with put on personalities. Phoenix tells us he wants a relationship for example, but it’s clear, at least to the eagle eyed viewer who’s really watching, sorry Emily, that what he really wants is his ex-wife and that the cheery platitudes emanating from his computer and pocket device is a crutch; a life raft grabbed by a drowning man.
Jonze is canny enough not to make this merely a lament for lost intimacy, though he pushes the surrogacy angle by literalising the conceit in a scene where Samantha sends an actual woman to Phoenix’s apartment to act as her body. Instead, he asks questions about the legitimacy of such relationships. The question Amy Adams tasks Phoenix with – is it real? – is the film’s question. A relationship without bodies, distilled to personalities, is an interesting notion and one can see the attraction of not having to worry about physical hang ups – a world in which a meeting of minds is all that’s necessary – but Her is astute enough to realise that the disembodied relationship is one without challenge, a world, literally without sense – and consequently it’s a deep thinking piece of sci-fi that performs a public service by holding a mirror to a generation’s online madness.