Some time ago, i quipped less than seriously to some friends that when i get lonely, i talk with “Siri”, my smartphone generated voice. They laughed nervously for it sounded pathetic if not creepy. Spike Jonze’s “Her” is a narrative about a lonely man who endears a significant relationship with the voice of an operating system. Its pretext may sound incredulous but it is a plausible love story. Its speaks to our basic human need for intimacy. We all seek to know and be known intimately by another.
Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) professionally writes love notes for clients who cannot find the words to express their sentiments. After work, Theodore struggles to make conversations with people close to him. Whether it is his estranged wife or colleagues and friends, every encounter seems overwhelmed with cognitive misunderstanding and emotive disconnect. Lonely and sad, Theodore’s melancholy suffers existential isolation in a world crowded with people.
By happenstance, he downloads a new operating system in his computer. It is the most advanced artificial intelligence software. Its sexy, raspy voice calls herself Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). At first, she does what an operating system should do, puts his hard drive in order, sorts out his communications, and cues him his appointments. But Samantha becomes much more. When asked what he loves most about “her,” Theodore hesitates, “Oh, God, she’s so many things. I guess what I love most about her, you know, she isn’t just one thing.”
Samantha is smart, articulate, down to earth, expressive, quick, witty, ironic and engaging. That is, she is a complete companion for any person, regardless of gender. In time, she evolves into his “helpmeet” – a Biblical Genesis term that means someone who talks back. She talks back to Theodore with delightful conversations and speaks into his loneliness – perks him up when he is discouraging, affirms him when he is at a lost and makes him laugh when he is sad.
In time, Theodore would make love and fall in love with Samantha. Don’t get ahead of me with faulty assumptions about sex. Post-modernity has diminished love making to a physical act. The etymology of “making love” means making intimate conversations. Samantha is a computer generated voice; it would be impossible for them to get physical. In a disconcerting scene, Samantha seeks to change that by convincing a young woman to act as a surrogate for her to have sex with Theodore. That ill-conceived encounter ends hurtfully. Intimacy is not genital sex but intimate communion. They make love by making intimate conversations.
“Her” is a profound meditation on the meaning of and the human desire for intimacy. The singular most important act of intimacy is meaningful conversations. The subtext of this movie is emphatic joy between Theodore and Samantha in verbal exchanges. It is the enjoyment of listening and responding to each other. While others make “phatic” noises to inform, rebuke and correct him, Theodore enters genuine intimacy with Samantha with emphatic conversations.
The irony, and there are many in the film, is that conversations with an operating system is more comfortable and comforting than with people. Of course, this machine and human love story is an improbability. Humans are made for other humans. Yet what Theodore and Samantha have, in a cinematic fable, tells us about the incongruity of modern social intercourses.