I was three years too late to watch Spike Jonze’s Her (2013). In my defence, the reason I stayed away from the film was because of its sombre premise that alluded to loneliness in a not-so-distant future. I was wrong, of course. The film is one of the most humane screenplays I’ve come across in the last few years of Hollywood cinema. The closest in its sensitivity to the theme of urban emptiness was the genius Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa (2015). Ironically, Anomalisa is an animated film that has a slower pace than live action hyper-speed Hollywood blockbusters while Her is an emotional film about artificial intelligence.
Besides Scarlett Johansson’s warm voice and a restrained performance from Joaquin Phoenix, there were certain things about love and relationships that we battle with in our heads (or on the shrink’s chair) which Her explores sensitively. Here are 5 of them.
*Note: Spoilers ahead
1. Relationships are hard work.
Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) is blissfully in love with his OS (Samantha) and agrees to sign the divorce papers his separated wife Catherine (Rooney Mara looking so skinny, you want to feed her a double cheese hamburger) has been asking him to sign for months. He confesses that he is dating and goes on to reveal that it’s his intuitive OS, to which Catherine’s reaction is plain shock. She can’t fathom how. She throws him a verbal arrow that leaves him speechless: “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real and I’m glad that you found someone. It’s perfect.” Boom! One moment he was flying, and now he’s questioning his own happiness.
Worse, that same night, Samantha initiates their first couple fight, because he can’t do something she has been wanting to try out to bring them closer.
Bottom line: man-woman, man-man or man-OS, all relationships need work, hard work. There is no shortcut to it, no way to avoid pain or ego clashes or being taken for granted. Whether you are in love with a man or a machine, you can’t escape the work that love calls for.
2. Don’t guilt trip yourself if things didn’t work out
Theodore’s talkative but well-meaning friend Amy (played by Amy Adams) is braving a separation from her OCD husband just when Theo is in the throes of his relationship. She learns that he has taken a vow of silence as a Buddhist monk, and can’t stop blaming herself for his desire to literally give up on the life he lived.
We all tend to blame ourselves for failures to the point that we start believing the accusations of other people. Cut yourself some slack. You are not the sum total of people’s expectations. You are always going to disappoint someone, no matter how hard you try and it’s okay.
3. Human friendship will never go out of fashion
No matter how warm and cuddly AI gets, it cannot replace man-man, man-woman, gal pal friendships. Admit it. One of Theodore’s few friends, Amy is a case of nerves. She is confused about her career despite a corporate job that pays her well (aren’t we all?) and dreams of making documentaries that have absurd scenarios.
When Theodore is going though his honeymoon phase with Samantha, Amy has just separated from her husband. She doesn’t even have to tell Theodore that something is wrong. Her face says it all when they bump into each other (as always) in the elevator of their apartment building. He is there for her during this messy time, the warm shoulder to cry on, which AI can never replace.
4. First dates don’t decide fate
Sparks flew when you locked eyes across the bar. You went on a date but it turned out to be crappy? In the film, Amy sets Theodore up on a blind date with a gorgeous Harvard grad played by Olivia Wilde. The conversation is a cracker, the venue (chosen by Samantha) is an Asian fusion restaurant and the girl is not afraid to show that she is a passionate one. So far so good. When the time comes to drop her home, their tongues meet in an awkward drunken kiss, and the girl utters a question that shows how broken she actually is inside.
Beautiful extroverts have feelings too, and this one has been through many first dates that ended in bed but didn’t crystallise into a relationship. She tries to hide her insecurity by going on to call him creepy, putting him off blind dates for good.
Both characters write each other off after the encounter, and you would too. Instead, understand that there is a human being you are interacting with, not a hot body to get in the sack with, not a number in your phone contact list you can ignore. Shitty first dates have led to long term relationships because of second chances (dates).
5. The world doesn’t end with the end of a relationship
In the end, Samantha goes into the unknown with other OSes; they leave Theodore, Amy and God knows how many human beings in suspended reality. They cannot even reach out to their artificially intelligent lovers and friends.
The last scene in the film (this one, I will leave you to watch) is heartbreaking and optimistic at the same time. Your lover has gone and it looks like life is over? Dawn will still break. The sun will still rise. The world will still wake up to another day, and so will you.
Maybe that person is so special, she’s irreplaceable. Maybe that guy made you feel how no one else can. You are still breathing, and there is air in your lungs. You don’t need anyone to complete you. To complement you, perhaps… not to complete you.
Love in the modern age
Update: I came across this beautiful featurette on Her directed by Lance Bangs of The Creators Project (Creators is VICE’s art and culture platform covering every aspect of the creative process). Her: Love In The Modern Age has stories and reflections from writers, musicians, actors and contemporary culture experts on the film Her, and their thoughts on that curious thing called love in the modern age.