The week of Her's fifth year of life, we look back on Spike Jonze's quietly beautiful futuristic romance.
Joaquin Phoenix should have been a silent film actor. He conveys more in his big, strange-colored melancholy eyes than many actors can in pages and pages of dialogue. Even though he’s the lead character in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, he barely speaks, and when he does, he’s often gruff to the point of incoherent. He’s rarely cast as ordinary working men, because there’s so much going on in his eyes that’s inscrutable and a little unsettling, and he wouldn’t seem believable as a suburban husband and father, unless that suburb was on Mars.
And yet, in Spike Jonze‘s Her, released five years ago this week, Phoenix plays a character so warm and tactile, so lived in, that it sometimes feels like you’re watching a documentary from the near future. Theodore is a man nearing forty, single but not fully divorced from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), mostly because he’s not ready to sign the papers yet. With a Ned Flanders mustache and high-waisted pants—which are apparently fashionable in this near future but still look silly and unflattering on him—he seems embarrassed at his own existence, the type of person who stays at a party just long enough to say that he was there before quietly slipping out the door.
Theodore is a writer for a company that specializes in custom-ordered love letters, the perfect outlet to say the things he can’t bring himself to say in person. This seems like one of those too precious “oh, of course he is” details you only see in movies, and yet, it’s not uncommon for someone who has difficulty expressing themselves verbally to be an eloquent, passionate writer. Falling in love with a woman he can’t see—an operating system with the ability to develop something approximating human emotions (voiced by Scarlett Johansson)—is so perfect that it doesn’t even occur to him whether it’s healthy or appropriate. It just is. It’s what he needs.
I’m going to skip the philosophical questions Jonze poses about the possibility of artificial intelligence becoming so adept at understanding human emotions that it actually surpasses us in consciousness, and instead focus on the bonds Theodore has formed with other real, flesh and blood people. Though Her is a glimpse at a not at all implausible future where we’ve become far more emotionally invested in the virtual rather than the real, Theodore hasn’t left his everyday world entirely. His closest friend is Amy (Amy Adams), and though they’re about the same age, and they were briefly something else to each other in the past, their relationship is now comfortably platonic, in a way that’s rarely illustrated in film. Amy is warmly plainspoken with Theodore, almost maternal, because that’s what a lot of women do with the men in our lives, friends or otherwise, we mother them and give them advice, and if that role isn’t returned in kind, then, well, we learn to live with that.
Theodore’s other closest friendship is more complicated. It’s with Catherine, his soon-to-be (if he can bring himself to sign those papers) ex-wife, and their relationship is probably the most painfully human aspect of the whole movie. Though it’s relatively easy to get a divorce now, meaning you no longer have to stay in a failing marriage until you’re about to murder each other, divorces in movies are almost always portrayed as adversarial, as ex-spouses simmer with barely restrained hatred. Though Theodore and Catherine argue, there’s still undeniable warmth and affection there, sadness rather than anger. We don’t know much about the circumstances that led to their splitting up, but we can probably guess. That playfulness and presence that Theodore has in flashbacks of earlier in their relationship disappeared at some point. He shut down, and was unable to express his feelings in any other way but writing letters for other people. That’s what happens in a lot of divorces and we don’t really talk about it—couples don’t stop loving each other, they just stop being able to express it. They take it for granted that it doesn’t have to be said, until one of them is already walking out the door.
Catherine is disappointed in Theodore’s new relationship not because he’s moved on, but because she believes he’s found someone who simply responds to what he says in the way he wants her to, without having to give anything in return. That’s not entirely true—Samantha very quickly gains her own agency—but one can see why Catherine would think it was. Clearly she had hoped that Theodore would have grown and learned from the failure of their marriage, and instead he’s taken what she perceives as the easy way. Amy, on the other hand, who gradually falls for her own operating system, thinks that love is “a form of socially acceptable insanity,” and that you should take happiness where you can find it. The movie wisely refrains from settling on which one of them is correct, if either of them even are.
Humans have an enormous capacity to love, more than most of us realize, but it’s not limitless. Samantha gradually evolves to a level of emotional consciousness far beyond Theodore’s comprehension, loving dozens, hundreds of people, no more and no less than she loves him. Theodore can’t accept this, and so he must let her go, though she promises to keep a space in her boundless heart for him. “If you get there, come find me,” she says. “Nothing will ever be able to tear us apart then.”
And then she’s gone, and Theodore is alone again. Though, not really alone. His friends are still there. Amy has been left behind by her operating system as well. The movie doesn’t try anything cute like Theodore and Amy suddenly realizing that this experience has shown that they were meant to be together. They’re simply united in their heartbreak, and not knowing what lies ahead. It’s Catherine that Theodore is thinking about in the end, his heart opened enough from his romance with Samantha that he’s finally able to tell his ex-wife what she needs to hear, at least in writing:
“I just wanted you to know there will be a piece of you in me always, and I’m grateful for that. Whatever someone you become, and wherever you are in the world, I’m sending you love. You’re my friend to the end. Love, Theodore.”