Her is a film set in the near future that explores the romantic life of protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Pheonix). Having recently split up with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore finds love in his portable computer’s operating system (Scarlett Johansson), essentially an enhanced version of Apple’s Siri. Below is a commentary that you can read along to as you watch the film, or if not I recommended that you see it first to contextualise some points I make:
1:00 From the get go the film establishes that Theodore is a hopeless romantic. The beginning is almost some soliloquy of his capacity for love. The closeness of the camera establishes that this is a character piece, and that we are currently peering into Theodore’s personal mind.
2:43 The job that Theodore has, where he produces very personal love letters for people he doesn’t know at all, signifies that this world the film is set in is one where the forged expression of love rather than the genuine expression of love is suffice, and genuine human interaction of the kind expressed in his letters is more difficult if not simply rarer than it is in modern day. Therefore there is a need for people like Theodore who provide the personal interaction, the outward expression of other peoples’ love, at a price.
3:54 Theodore choosing to play a sad song further expresses that he is an emotional individual.
4:18 Amy (Theodore’s local friend, played by Amy Adams) pointing out to Theodore that he hasn’t been himself recently hints that there may have previously been an inciting event which threw Theodore into this apparent depression.
4:51 The deliberate use of consecutive shots showing Theodore in crowded spaces may signify that he feels caved in.
5:53 Kinect 3.0 confirmed?
7:06 The solitary habits of his home life mixed with almost pitiful attempts at brief sexual relief show his ennui.
7:15 The fact that Theodore skips the option to simply have conversation with a woman shows that at this point, due to his now apparent break-up, he only wants women for sex. This was also shown earlier to a lesser extent when he chose to view those provocative celebrity photos.
8:43 Theodore envisioning the naked pregnant celebrity may mean that he yearns for the sex he cannot have now, the kind of sex in a committed relationship, the pregnant state of the woman possibly signifying a committed relationship with children. Either this or he envisions the pregnant woman because she looks vaguely like his ex, although this is unlikely as they could have just had the ex on screen at the time. Either way, this signifies he is hung up.
9:54 Theo’s blank, almost humiliated expression shows that he suddenly realises that having phone sex with strangers isn’t quite what he wants.
12:00 This scene is of great significance, as it shows that the OS is designed to help Theo, which contextualises everything that the OS goes on to do, as it is not there to solely love him, but to entertain him and aid him. As well as this, the fact that OS 1 would ask such an invasive question as ‘how is your relationship with your mother?’ clearly shows that OS1 incorporated the potential for romantic relationships, meaning that their later relationship is by no means coincidental. This is key to remember.
15:28 Theo cracking jokes at the OS, now Samantha, shows that he is beginning to dignify her as something, perhaps even now someone to impress.
15:36 The change in tone of music always symbolises Theodore’s simultaneous change in mood.
16:40 While Theodore, in his job, gets to write out his fantasies of his ex, he also gets to vent his bitterness that they are not still together.
17:43 At this point the film has established that Samantha currently plays more of a helping role in Theodore’s life.
19:03 Theodore’s mood is beginning to turn around, he now has a degree of humility.
19:50 I love this guy.
20:26 Samantha is beginning to resent being addressed as if she were merely an assistant.
20:59 The intelligence of the video games shows that this is set in the near future, which would explain the popularity of Theo’s business as if it were the future of greetings cards.
21:34 Theodore still doesn’t recognise Samantha as above technology
22:26 I still love this dude.
24:44 The fact that Theodore leaves the room shows that either he doesn’t want people to overhear of his divorce or that he is overwhelmed by the thought of it thereby meaning he has to leave from panic.
25:18 The silence of the flashbacks is important as it shows that Theodore finds it difficult to differentiate between the past and the present. He is still stuck in his past, and adding sound would highlight that disparity between the two dimensions.
28:13 Theodore addressing the fact that Samantha isn’t human shows that he realises he is at his most vulnerable, considering he is essentially pouring out to what he perceives to be a computer.
32:57 The uneasy camera reflects Theodore’s drunken state.
36:22 With the camera now stable, we can assume this was a literally sobering event for Theodore.
37:07 Where Theodore once didn’t recognise Samantha as human, he now seeks conversation with her.
39:28 Theodore’s monologue on loneliness very accurately describes the sense-numbing effect of heartbreak.
41:08 Theodore may be finding solace in Samantha because all real women have failed him.
43:12 Is it just me or does Theo have premature ejaculation?
46:35 For the first time we see that Theo is not just happy, but rather happy he has found someone.
51:05 Samantha’s line “The past is just a story we tell ourselves” puts into perspective the bitter way he views Catherine. Perhaps, then, Theo has become detached from the real her and has vilified her in his mind due to heartbreak and distance. Perhaps, as well, she thinks more of him than he realises.
53:24 Theo’s look of sudden remembrance when he says “it’s not serious” makes it seem as if he has to remind himself, that he is trying to disregard that notion and continue with Samantha as if the relationship were serious.
59:59 At this point we can see that Theodore and Amy are extremely similar people. Both hung-up, yet oddly positive.
1:06:11 Theodore envisioning Catherine even though she is right there in front of him reminds us both that he has indelible feelings for her, and that he is mired in this inescapable fantasy of his past.
1:07:09 Theodore’s use of the present tense in “everything you make makes me cry”, using ‘make’ rather than ‘made’ shows that there is almost a glimmer of hope in him that things will revert to the time when he was truly happy with her.
1:08:16 Catherine’s apparent objection to Theodore dating an OS shows that the world at large has not accepted it.
1:08:29 Theodore’s objection to her objection, insisting that Samantha is more than an aid, because he assumed that was what she was insinuating, highlight’s Theodore’s previously hidden insecurity about his relationship’s image.
1:10: 58 The slow zoom on Theo emphasises the increase of pressure he feels.
1:11:13 The constant glances back to the portable computer show that Theo is feeling the effects of disillusionment, starting to doubt that Samantha is real at all. He constantly glances back to the one thing that signifies that she can never be human, the one thing that contains and limits her.
1:12:21 Theodore feeling that it’s necessary to bring up the fact that Samantha’s an OS to Paul’s indifference shows that the doubt spurred on by Catherine is still in him.
1:12:40 Theodore’s literal distance in this shot represents how distant he is from himself in that moment.
1:24:29 A very cleverly shot moment that signifies that Theo feels as if the world is hunting him down.
1:27:48 The shot lingering on Theo’s expression after Amy touches him shows the sensation of joy he gets from genuine human affection.
1:32:20 This film has a great soundtrack.
1:38:41 The use of the term ‘1970’s’ rather than just ’70’s’ may indicate that this is set in the far, far future.
1:40:42 The increasing noise of the kettle signifies the intensifying of Theo’s frustration at Samantha’s growing distance and independence.
1:44:43 The shakiness of the camera reflects how shaken up Theodore is.
1:57:24 Amy resting her head on him hints that they develop a romantic relationship after the film.
So… what is this film about? By itself the film is a competent tale of a man who manages to find the big answers in life from something as unlikely as his computer. But that’s too simple for a Spike Jonze film, to an outsider the idea of ‘man dates Siri’ would probably be viewed as quirky at best, and would probably be imagined starring Adam Sandler due to the comedic possibilities of the situation. This film luckily didn’t succumb to exploiting the potentially hilarious situations found on the surface of what it’s like to date a computer. The title of the film, the advertisements never allude to the idea that this would be a film about a man who falls hopelessly in love with his computer because, ultimately, this film just isn’t about that. This film presents and burrows deep into themes of love, relationships and the fragility of happiness, whilst never hitting a dissonant note against the way in which the story is told.
To call this film a romance or love story would be a major misnomer. The beginning of the film makes this clear to you. Theo is a pretty good looking guy and could probably pass average romcom standards, but he’s in no way a completely likeable character. The start of the film tells you that Theo is, well, pretty pathetic. He’s lost, sad, lonely, anything but your average male lead in a generic romantic film. And, frankly, Theo can definitely be seen as a bad person. He uses women for rebound sex while still married, he tries to put his wife on Prozac to her supposed objection, he delays the signing of his divorce papers because it will keep him comfortable and he is complicit in a business that forges personal letters. While many of these offences Theo does are done because he is in an involuntary depression, he still does them. And that’s why this is such an interesting film, as it has the preface of romance with a protagonist that is the antithesis of at least traditionally romantic.
Another thing that makes this film so fascinating is that it’s fairly ambiguous in portraying what it’s trying to talk about. The concepts here are fairly pliable, applicable to conversations about long-distance relationships, the futility of attempting to replicate the human being but in retrospect, to me at least, this film is clearly about one thing, and that is finding love. It doesn’t explore the themes of love at all, I’ll go on to explain why, but it does explore the sometimes painful, often graceful process of finding love. And it’s very, very good at that.
Theo never falls in love with Samantha. He just thinks he does. He is content with her, often expressing the symptoms of love when he is with her, but he is never truly happy with her. He constantly doubts her legitimacy, worries about what other people think of her, and he can’t bear to face the challenges of going out of his way to make her happy. Theo doesn’t love Samantha, he owns her. Samantha is a computer. She tells him the things he wants to hear and hides what he doesn’t so that he can continue believing that his infatuation is reasonable. She makes him the songs he wants to listen to, draws him the things he wants to see, does tasks he’s too afraid to do under his name, and she literally can’t escape him because he carries her around in his pocket, even when he does things that she doesn’t agree with, which may cause a break up in a normal relationship, she has to stay. Nothing about their relationship is genuine, admirable, and it takes Theo until the very end of the film to realise this. Samantha loved him as perfectly as a machine could. But that inevitably meant that she loved him like a machine. She overcompensated with superhuman attentiveness and knowledge so that Theodore could maintain the illusion that he’s okay with loving a machine. Because that’s what she’s programmed to do.
At the end of the film he apologises to Catherine because, ultimately, she was right. Theodore dating Samantha meant that he never had to struggle with the challenges of real women, he never had to work for anything, he could be selfish, and at the end he experiences this epiphany that tells him this. And he apologises to Catherine at the end of the film because he realises that she did not betray him like he has so far been telling himself she did. He finally realises that she simply grew to be a different person to what he wanted her to be. Theo was a controlling person. And it took Samantha, someone completely subservient to him, to realise that, and to accept that Catherine is not a bad person.
Samantha’s explanation as to why she leaves is deliberately nebulous. She’s not very clear because then she doesn’t have to explain that she was always going to leave. I think that was always going to happen from the start. OS1 was always built with the capacity to imitate love, so that it could bring others together. That’s precisely what happens at the ending. Amy and Theo are left hollow by the disappearance of their OS1s, yet simultaneously sobered by the realisation that they have spent far too much time attempting to build something real on a foundation of artificial substance. So, realising what they’ve missed the most, they find each other.
OS1 was never capable of giving people love. But, it did something similar. It was tailored to the relationship of its owners’ mothers, it took into accounts owners’ interests, it made owners their favourite love songs, helped owners along their journeys. It did something more significant than giving people its limited version of love, it brought people real love. Its deliberate attempts at love and its deliberately terse disappearance made users realise that they need each other. For Theo it was more than that. For Theo, he needed to realise that he couldn’t change people, and that he needs someone who he knows won’t change for anyone. That’s Amy. The final shot sees Theodore get what he never knew he always wanted. The sensation of a real woman resting her head on his shoulder, just as lost, and just as found, just as worthy of real, untouched love as he is.
Her is one of the best films I have ever seen. It’s sad, cathartic, uncompromisingly real, and it fully deserved its Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. And it’s okay if you dudebros watch it because it’s really not a love story.