Spike Jonze’s ‘Her’: Love in a Future Age

Melinda Parks


In an age where cell phones are our constant companions, where an operating system can respond to voice-activated prompts and mobile internet access provides us with instant information at any given moment, our relationships with technology and with each other are rapidly evolving. Writer-director Spike Jonze’s latest film, “Her,” an original and surprisingly emotional story about a lonely writer who develops feelings for his cell phone operating system, serves as a commentary on our society’s increasing reliance on technology.


Spike Jonze applies the same, singularly intimate and fantastical vision to “Her” that he applied to the extensive variety of projects – commercials, music videos, skateboarding videos, short films, television work, and feature length films – that have garnered him critical praise and worldwide recognition as a master director and screenwriter; among his dozens of awards and nominations are two Golden Globe nominations and an Oscar nomination. Some of his most notable works include his direction of music videos for a diverse group of well-known artists like Weezer, the Beastie Boys, Kanye West and Jay-z, Bjork, and Arcade Fire. His videos range in tone from wild and silly to grim and sometimes disturbing, but all of them include Jonze’s sense of the absurd, of a dreamy, almost childlike fantasy world. 


This offbeat directing sensibility has also marked the directorial style of Jonze’s commercials (for companies like Adidas and IKEA) and feature length films, the most famous of which are his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation.” In “Being John Malkovich,” a puppeteer discovers a portal that connects to Malkovich’s mind. In the semi-autobiographical “Adaptation.,” Charlie Kaufman attempts to follow up his successful first film with a screen adaptation of a famous book. “Her” upholds this kind of absurd story-telling through its futuristic setting and unusual romance.


Combine Spike Jonze’s exciting career with a controversial lead actor like Joaquin Phoenix, and you create the kind of critical anticipation that has built up to the premiere of “Her.” Phoenix, born into a performing family (including brother River Phoenix), began acting at the age of eight. He first received widespread attention for his role in “Gladiator,” and went on to feature in such films as “Signs,” “The Village,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Walk the Line,” and “The Master.” Despite his prominent roles and many accolades, including a Golden Globe, a Grammy, and copious nominations, Phoenix’s fame arises largely from his erratic behavior in the public eye. Following the announcement of his retirement from acting to pursue a rapping career in 2008, and his now-infamous Letterman interview, he released the mockumentary, “I’m Still Here” in 2010, which exposed the supposed retirement as a hoax. Since this brief acting hiatus, Phoenix has made a strong comeback and remains a highly respected actor. Still, he retains his reputation as an unpredictable, evasive, sometimes belligerent interviewee who shies away from the expected Hollywood mold.


The acting chops which have allowed Joaquin Phoenix to play characters at turns cruel, goofy, serious, shy, and violent, now carry him in the role of the sensitive and isolated Theodore. A writer for a company called Beautiful Handwritten Letters, Theodore dictates correspondence for other people into a computer microphone, stringing together poetic phrases that reveal his idealized feelings about love; he longs for human connection, as demonstrated by nostalgic daydreams of the happy memories from his ending marriage, but he lives in a world where technology insulates people in their own minds, disconnected from human contact. Theodore’s cell phone lives permanently in his breast pocket, to which he connects with a wireless ear piece, and he spends his free time checking email and listening to music and the news. In the office and during his commute to and from work, he is surrounded by people similarly engrossed in their own technological devices. No one looks at or speaks with or touches anyone else in this efficient but sterile world.


When he sees an advertisement for O.S.1, an operating system similar to iphone’s Siri, which promises advanced artificial intelligence, he decides to install it. Enter Samantha, the O.S. with whom Theodore will form the first authentic-feeling connection he has experienced since the dissolution of his marriage.  


Jonze’s futuristic world demonstrates the direction our increasingly tech-driven society is headed, and he succeeds in creating a realistic depiction of the future through his subtlety. We know Theodore lives in the future because of his mustache and the bizarrely highwaisted pants everyone wears, because of the sleek, streamlined design of the city’s architecture, and because of technological advances such as Theodore’s hologram video game system. These understated details suggest a natural evolution of fashions and trends, but they are not so revolutionary as to remove the viewer from the story. We watch Theodore living in this world and we think, yes, those strangely-proportioned pants probably are in fashion in the future.

As a result of Jonze’s believable futuristic society, we imagine ourselves in it. We imagine how we would react to the kind of emotional isolation that drives a hurting Theodore to befriend an O.S.. Because, in the end, “Her” is less about technology and more about relationships. Samantha demonstrates both the instinctual, human desire to connect with someone outside ourselves and also the opposing fear of intimacy that compels us to isolate ourselves with our devices. Theodore is lonely, and in Samantha he finds someone with whom he can connect minus the messy, unpleasant experiences inherent in human relationships. She is programmed to cater to his personality, to his preferences and needs. She is smarter than any human (she reads entire books in less than a second), and she makes Theodore’s life more efficient by organizing his files. She is available when he needs her, but can be dismissed with the click of a button. Having no corporeal presence means Theodore never has to deal with the unwelcome smells or fluids or physical imperfections that come with a human body. As his ex-wife sneeringly observes over lunch, Samantha is his perfect woman because he can feel all the pleasant emotions of a relationship without having to deal with anything “real.” 


“Her” never moralizes, but it seems to conclude that devices only go so far to fill our emotional voids. In the end, Samantha develops beyond Theodore’s capabilities, she becomes too intelligent to relate to him, and she disappears along with other O.S.’s, leaving Theodore alone; in the final scene, he watches the sun rise over the roofs of the city with his friend Amy, suggesting that, amid a world of technology, humans connect best with other humans. Samantha had no flaws, yet her very lack of imperfection separated her and Theodore.


Jonze gives our society food for thought – and perhaps a warning – as we move closer to Theodore and Samantha’s reality.


Author Bio:

Melinda Parks is the pen name of a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


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