Her opens with a sequence that appears to be a heartfelt confession, as protagonist Theodore Twombly addresses both an old love and the screen itself. As fond memories are extolled and warm feelings expressed, his words gradually land false – Theodore is neither the assumed writer nor recipient of this letter, and everything he’s recalling applies to a life that isn’t his. And when the screen pulls out, we see Theodore is not alone in his fabrication – in fact, he’s one in a long line of cubicled workers expressing the same thoughts, a factory producing emotional catharsis. Theodore works for Beautiful Handwritten Letters Dot Com, a company that has risen to meet the public’s need for thoughts so poignant and personal we can’t express them ourselves.
Theodore’s company offers the first of many reflections on our divided and mediated age, where personal connection often feels more like an albatross than a joy. The closest human connection Theodore generally engages in is on the elevator or subway, where he’s jostled by anonymous contact but fully alone. The great spires of Theodore’s city loom like impersonal bulwarks, emphasizing not our human togetherness, but the walls that keep us apart. And even Theodore’s apartment is a constant reminder of his loneliness – it is a space far too large for him, full of unused chairs and rooms that extend like vast chasms behind his hunched back.
Theodore is desperate to have someone to talk to, but unwilling to engage in more than a superficial way – still coming to terms with his divorce from the wife he grew up with, the emotional unavailability that ended their relationship is only magnified in its absence. And so, learning about a new OS that promises a truly human companion, he installs the software and says hello to Samantha.
The rest of Her proceeds as a strange mixture of classic and modern romance, as Theodore and Samantha navigate each of their emotional hurdles together. Theodore is insecure and deeply sensitive, and so entering into a relationship where the first several hurdles are already cleared (since Samantha is theoretically a program that checks his emails and whatnot) allows him to express his best possible self. Samantha is full of jokes and endlessly curious, happy to explore the world with Theodore even as her growing selfhood makes her question her own identity.
The easiest question for Her to ask would be “is a relationship with an AI a real relationship at all?” And the film does ask that question, in a variety of subtle and thoughtful ways. While Theodore’s best friend Amy offers no judgment for his choice, his ex-wife sees this relationship as one more expression of his inability to engage like an adult. And that accusation stings Theodore, because it’s a suspicion he himself has been trying to suppress. Samantha’s efforts to be “more human” for him only drive the two further apart, and the question of whether Theodore’s feelings are a phase, a new way of life, or simply an escape from the pain of real-world connection is given exactly the ambiguous treatment it deserves.
But of course, Theodore’s feelings are not terribly unique in either his world or our own. Theodore’s job offers another reflection on the concept of emotional validity, one that could easily be seen as far more jaded than his bond with Samantha. Theodore’s company sells the expression of emotional connection – and not just as a one-off gesture, but as a life choice. As Theodore offhandedly mentions, one couple have been having him write their love letters for eight years, meaning Theodore himself has dictated some of their fundamental terms of endearment. At another point, he tells Samantha that he’s been writing letters from parents to their recent college graduate son since that son was twelve years old.
Theodore’s job description demands he construct the tangible icons of intimacy that average people cannot personally create. While his own life is dominated by his inability to connect with others, his skill with words makes him a gifted sculptor of fabricated intimacy. But the fact that Her never questions the fundamental assumptions of Theodore’s job makes for a powerful point. In a society marked by constantly shifting social assumptions and guided by technological innovations that have nothing to do with our social nature, who is to say what style of intimacy is artificial, illegitimate, or true? Aren’t our own assumptions about intimacy’s validity artificial in their own way, and largely dictated by the assumptions of the times? And what if we humans aren’t best-suited to approaching intimacy in the ways our current society has enabled or chosen?
Her’s unquestioned assumptions about the society Theodore inhabits offers a stern rejoinder to critics of online dating, hookup culture, or any other ambiguous paradigm of intimacy. Our relationship with society at large is dictated by artificial cultural assumptions – our relationships with others are dictated by the tools we have at hand. Theodore lives in a world of concrete monoliths and cavernous homes, and his attempts to find love in that context reflect the awkward negotiation between human nature and the impersonal worlds we inhabit.
Of course, neither Theodore nor Samantha are framed as “default characters” – they are both complex individuals, Samantha’s personhood as unquestioned as it is mutable. Samantha herself questions her identity, and gets hurt when Theodore brings up her programmed nature. But her movement from curiosity to personal joy to an expansive, potentially post-singularity existence presents both a victory for her and a cruel contrast with Theodore’s own journey. While the general movement towards technologically mediated relationships may be a cultural inevitability, the distance between Theodore and a happy life is a tragedy all his own.
Just as Samantha at one point tries to be more human for Theodore, so does Theodore try to keep up with his swiftly evolving girlfriend. But Theodore can’t match Samantha – as he dreams of romantic weekends and small talks, she is expanding into a world that, just like his ex-wife’s, is too broad and imposing to hold him in it. Twice does Theodore open his description of Samantha with “it’s good to be with someone who’s excited about life”; his words offer a sad contrast, as Theodore can only hope to live in Samantha’s glow.
It is a very painful thing to feel others are growing past you, while you yourself are stuck in the same routines. Theodore’s core emotional problem reflects his mediated choices – he lets unhappy feelings build and build, and continues saying things are fine when they are clearly not. His fear of confrontation fosters resentment in his lovers, his general fear of the world forming a shield that keeps him from growing forward. Our embracing of mediated intimacy may be an inevitability, but when it allows us to shy away from the sharp edges of adult relationships, it betrays the people we could be.
This, too, is an ambiguity that Her refuses to clarify. Theodore’s hand is ultimately forced by Samantha’s growth – when she moves on, he is left to pick up the pieces or stay huddled in bed. Rising at last, Theodore composes a letter to his ex-wife, apologizing for the hurt he can finally admit he caused. And shuffling to his best friend’s door, he asks her to come with him, leading her up to the apartment roof.
The city expands in all directions there, that graveyard of skyscrapers that’s offered no solace before. Theodore has no words to challenge that loneliness; like the film itself, his answers are muddled and incomplete. He can only sit beside his friend, watching dawn break over a skyline that feels maybe slightly less lonesome than the day before. Be they commissioned letters or lavish presents or AI-mediated adventures, all else is performance surrounding a center of truth. The sun is rising. His feelings will keep.
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