The following is a full spoiler discussion of Her. If you’ve yet to see the film, you may want to check out our review, which is spoiler free.
mxdwn Movies is proud to feature guest writer Zach Hammill on this article. Zach is a writer and director whose latest short film, McMeta, is currently featured on Funny or Die.
Tim Falkenberg: I’ve made no secret of my love for Spike Jonze’s Her. It topped my personal Top 10 of 2013 list, and was mxdwn Movies’ Best Movie of 2013. Zach, I know you were a big fan of Her as well.
Zach Hammill: I think we could talk all day about the performances by Joaquin Phoenix (who I think is the ONLY actor alive who could have played the role of Theodore Twambley and make this story believable) and Scarlett Johansson (the voice of Samantha), but everybody else seems to be doing a good job at that already.
Tim: Yep, they’re both great. There are probably a lot of details we’re going to miss here, in large part because so much of this movie and the way it’s made lends itself to discussion. But let’s not worry too much about hitting every last bit of minutiae and just jump right in. What’s stuck with you about Her?
Zach: One of the striking things about Her is the way in which it’s definitely a sci-fi film, but all the cool world-building details get pushed to the background to allow for the relationship to be front and center. But the details of the world are so rich and believable and not too far off from where we are now. It’s sort of the opposite of Gattaca, which claims to be set in the not-too-distant future, but that seems very far into the future to me.
Tim: Yeah, this was one of my favorite parts about the movie. Along with the production design (which I’m betting we’ll get around to before this is all over), I loved how we’re just dropped into this world. We don’t really need anything explained to us because it’s A) close enough to our own world to understand intuitively, and B) the characters in the movie just accept the reality around them. There’s stuff that’s cool to them, namely Samantha, but none of it is quite world-rocking. None of the technology, I guess you’d say, feels futuristic or inexplicable, even though it sort of is.
Zach: No flying cars.
Tim: But lots of pedestrians.
Zach: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Lots of foot traffic and public transportation. I don’t even remember seeing a car at any point in the whole movie.
Tim: Wow, I didn’t even notice that, but I think you’re right. And it does focus all the attention of the movie back on Theodore and Samantha.
Zach: It’s interesting, I think, that in scenes in which Theodore is in a public place with lots of people milling about, I can’t think of any scenes where two people are talking directly to each other, except for the blind date scene, maybe. They’re all in relationships with their devices. Even as I look around this Starbucks (where we’re sitting as we write this) I see a small group of people and they’re all holding a device and not really making eye contact.
Tim: Her is absolutely in it to discuss our relationship with technology, and the isolation it often brings about, but one of the things that really struck me is that it never harped on that point. Thematically, it was dealing with so much more instead of just focusing on this one issue. It was about how our relationship with technology interacts with our relationship with others interacts with feelings of loneliness interacts with what it means to be human. I mentioned in my review one of the things that stuck with me was Theodore’s reaction to the little alien guy in the video game, how much he claimed to love this little character no matter how often he cursed Theodore out. It’s weird!
Zach: Yeah, it’s funny that the movie never out-and-out condemns us for these tendencies, but rather lays out where we as a society are headed. Also, Theodore seems more accepting of that little alien guy and his opinions and lack of tact than he seems able to deal with the emotions and opinions of people in his life, which is sort of hinted at when he meets Catherine to sign their divorce papers.
Tim: He can turn off the game, but it seemed like one of the things that led to his separation with Catherine, at least in her eyes, was that he tried to turn off to her as well. Which didn’t really work. In fact, Theodore gets most upset when Samantha treats him that way. She’s cavorting with other AIs, which leads to that scene where he breaks down on the subway steps. And, in fact, this is the one point where Theodore overtly notices how much all the people around him are interacting with their own devices to the exclusion of other people. Not exactly sure what the connection between the two is, but I think it’s part of why this film felt so cohesive to me despite the fact that it’s dealing with a lot of different, weighty issues.
Zach: Well, it makes me think of trolling on the internet, in a way. It’s easier to be maybe more honest and less tactful with a machine. You’re not making eye contact with anyone, you’re not getting a visual reaction to what’s being said. It’s just uncensored, impulsive opinion. It also just made me think of trying to interpret someone’s tone while reading an email. If all you have is someone’s words to go by, you can read into that with whatever you personally bring to it. There’s another level in which we hear how Samantha expresses herself, and how something that is said can typically carry more meaning than what is said, but I think Theodore is still able to open up to her as he does because he’s not face-to-face with her. If that makes sense.
Tim: I think so. Amy (Amy Adams) seems to have a similar experience with her OS later in the movie. But the other scene this makes me think of is early on when Theodore tries to have phone sex with the girl from the…service? Not sure what you’d call that. Anyways, he has a very limited perspective by which to interpret whether she’s a, well, in a lot of ways, a kindred spirit, and he completely misjudges her. And then later with the surrogate, it’s a little bit of a different situation, but that physical presence is completely inhibiting to him.
Zach: With those two scenes in particular, part of me, on a pure storytelling level, just sort of went, “huh. So that’s how it is in the future” or “what an interesting narrative device.” Then the other part of me was just completely creeped out by the idea. Which I think is sort of the point, but the way Spike Jonze handles it is pretty amazing. He has such a gift for taking what could easily be a wacked-out high-concept studio premise and then completely grounding it in reality, with real emotional baggage and consequences attached. It doesn’t present those scenes as, “oh, cool.” If anything, it further builds upon the loneliness at the film’s core.
Tim: No, those scenes are presented as part of the fabric of reality, even if they’re a little on the fringe of what might be normal society. But this also begins to get into the very high profile sexual nature of the movie, something I was pretty unsure about when I first walked out of the theater. It’s almost – almost – too much. I mean, even Chris Pratt’s character, Theodore’s co-worker, seems to be hitting on him before they go on their double date. But sexuality also isn’t essential to the movie’s conclusion, which I thought was very important. In a lot of ways, it’s needed to set off the idea of what real, and not only real, but complete human interaction is. The date scene, for example, concludes with Olivia Wilde’s character looking for a hook up, which isn’t really satisfactory to either one of them.
To me, the discomfort Spike Jonze makes the audience go through, and I’m thinking of some of these scenes, but also notably the fantasy of the pregnant woman Theodore has and his sex scene with Samantha, were an essential part of the movie even though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. It seems important to me that we are made to feel highly uncomfortable, perhaps in order to feel more emotionally connected to Theodore.
Zach: Right. The scenes didn’t feel excessive or gratuitous, but we were made to feel ill at ease because of the level of intimacy. It’s very voyeuristic… which makes me wonder during the love scene with Samantha: What’s going on on her side? It reminded me of another funny observation later (during a particularly intense scene) when Samantha lets out a sigh, and Theodore asks why she sighed, since she’s a computer and doesn’t need oxygen.
Tim: I wonder how much of that was included for the audience’s benefit. I mean, yes, it’s an important character moment, but one of the things the script did really well, I thought, was drop you into Theodore’s world, and then circle back to answer most of the questions we had early on. Answering questions about how common the artificially intelligent OSs are, or how common it is for people to have relationships with their OSs, this is stuff that could well have derailed the narrative early on, but it’s essential that the film answers some of these questions about the premise instead of ignoring them altogether.
Zach: The film is very wise in not frontloading all of this stuff, by doling it out incrementally. One thing I also loved about it is the comment on how quickly technology evolves and advances, and how humans are still humans and need to evolve in human time. The third act in which Samantha admits to being in love with hundreds of other OSs, and having the capacity to do so, was original and also frightening, and a good reminder that people need people.
Tim: Yeah, I was actually listening to a podcast discussion of Her the other day, and it was remarked that we actually watched the singularity happen in this movie, but it’s not at all a part of the story, which is kind of crazy. There’s an entire movie coming out later this year (Transcendence) that’s premised on the dawn of the singularity.
Zach: That’s fascinating. I read that there was a whole other section of the original movie that was cut out, that was just focused on world-building, getting the audience up to speed. I wonder if the idea of the singularity was explored… I can’t imagine Her being better if that was included, in a way.
Tim: I was 100% satisfied with the world building done in Her. Like I said, I think it’s great that it circled back to answer a couple key questions about the premise, but I didn’t need more than that.
So this sort of segues into something I mentioned earlier that I absolutely loved about this movie: the production design.
Zach: Yes! All the details. The sort-of muted pastels, the high waisted pants. The wide open spaces of Theodore’s apartment and workspace. The tidiness.
Tim: The wood panelling.
Zach: That’s right! I love that Theodore’s device looks like a cross between an iPhone and a station wagon, and how it’s held up in his pocket by a safety pin so Samantha can “see.”
Tim: It works so well, I think, because it gives this future L.A. a very particular feel. It feels like Theodore exists in an actual time and space, but it also hearkens to past eras. This feels like a continuation of history, which is something we got into a little at the top.
Zach: This is what we do all the time: look back on the past 20 years for our current style, and at the same time we love our technology, don’t we? With Theodore’s hipster mustache and pants, does that mean this is a future that’s 20 years away? If I’m still in L.A. in 20 years then I look forward to the mass transit.
Tim: No joke! So before we wrap this up, let’s talk about the ending a little. I loved the way that Amy’s subplot was gradually brought along, and that it was Theodore’s relationship to her that comes into focus right at the very end.
Zach: Exactly. You get the sense, too, that the movie could have been about Amy instead, with Theodore as the subplot, and the story beats would be exactly the same.
Tim: Oh, man. That’s a movie I want to see. But yes, her subplot never gets in the way of Theodore’s story, but it’s part of it, it enhances it. Great directing.
Zach: It’s funny. Amy Adams isn’t in the movie all that much, really, but just the right amount, and she’s so excellent, and her character is so well-drawn, and because we’ve been following Theodore, that when she shows up from time to time, we understand her.
Tim: I think it’s all the more impressive because she’s the one character who really leans heavily on exposition to supplement her standing. Theodore tells Samantha that he’s been friends with Amy forever, which ends up being really important. Amy feels like she could just be the friendly neighbor at first, but by the end of the movie, the knowledge that she’s more than that works so closely with all the scenes we see her in to make her character arc feel very complete. Like we said, about as complete as Theodore’s.
Zach: Don’t you find it interesting that Theodore and Samantha go on a double date with Chris Pratt and his girlfriend, and Samantha has no trouble interacting with them, but Samantha and Amy don’t interact much, if at all. Maybe they’re introduced to each other by Theodore? I can’t remember…
Tim: Theodore talks about Samantha with Amy on several occasions, and when Samantha leaves for good, it’s Amy that Theodore goes running to, but we never see Amy as a direct replacement for or alternative to Samantha. I was so glad that the film didn’t try to get Theodore and Amy hitched at the end. It’s in the back of our minds, for sure, but the movie never quite goes there. The last shot of the movie is the two of them on the roof watching the sunrise – and it never feels romantic! It’s remarkable. Amy leans her head over on Theodore’s shoulder, and she seems like his sister.
Zach: While this Warner Bros. studio movie has a definite indie sensibility, the ending doesn’t feel like an ambiguous indie movie open ending, know what I mean? It does feel like an ending of this story to me, where these characters went through something truly profound and needed each other to help sort it out. At the end of the day, we need real flesh-and-blood people.
Tim: One more thing I’d like to point out: Samantha is inescapably a huge, important part of this movie, and Scarlett Johansson has absolutely done a great job, but I think it’s very telling of the story as a whole that we’ve spent more time talking about Theodore’s relationship with Amy than we have Theodore’s relationship with Samantha. Like you said, that’s what feels solid by the end.
Zach: Yeah. Take that, internet!