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It must be my fourth time watching Her. I truly believe that you should watch every film at least twice if you can, if not more. The first time you are fresh and ignorant and take the film very much at face value. The second time, you remember your favourite parts and look forward to those; maybe you mention them to the friends you’ve dragged to the cinema/living room to watch the film again. The second time you spot things you didn’t notice before. Foreshadowing, the colour palette, certain lines. After the second viewing, you can watch the film without really watching it. You’re familiar enough with the plot that that becomes more of a background noise to the thoughtful subtleties included by the director/editor/sound mixer/etc. You might come to better understand the key themes and the progression of character arcs. You learn to see the film in a different light to when you first watched it, whether brighter or darker. If it is a film you love, revisiting it can be a mixed blessing. You smile, laugh and cry and the moments you’ve always treasured remind you why you first fell in love with that film. However, you’ll also see little inconsistencies you missed before, and try to ignore them. Maybe once is enough after all.
I digress. Her is a film about love and the nature of relationships and personal growth. Throughout the film, our point of view rests intimately on Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) shoulders. A playful and sensitive man struggling to come to terms with his divorce. The not-too-distant future setting and the focus on the development of technology is reminiscent of Black Mirror and the content of the film seems entirely plausible. The ending is mercifully not quite so soul-destroyingly hopeless as Black Mirror would like. Like the rest of the world, Theodore installs his new operating system, a hyper-intelligent digital assistant similar to Siri or Alexa with the ability to adapt to best suit its user. Throughout the film, Theodore seems torn between feeling lonely and wanting someone to be his companion, and being too afraid to commit. It seems too good to be true when he is set up on a date with a woman who finds his sensitivity and playfulness endearing and is openly very keen to start a relationship with him. Sure enough, we see details that might be insignificant to any of us, but become detrimental to the relationship for Theodore. His blind-ish date (Olivia Wilde) corrects his kissing, then asks for reassurance that he’s not just going to sleep with her then cast her aside like men have done to her in the past. The critique and the suggestion of commitment act as deal-breakers for Theodore. The latter in particular is something that he is not yet ready to consider. He is constantly surrounded by romantic relationships in different stages of gestation: the step-father eating dinner with his girlfriend/new wife’s kids, his colleague Paul (Chris Pratt) and his girlfriend Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen), and the split between Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). The reminder that he is single is perhaps sometimes so overwhelming that the only time Theodore feels entirely comfortable is alone. Almost. But more on that later.
We see things almost from Theodore’s point of view. Almost. The camera spends so much time on him and only him that we start to relate, and even become him during the movie. The bright colours he wears draw focus always to him when he is in scenes with others. We are experiencing everything at the same pace Theodore does. However, we are, obviously, not him. The camera is often intimately close to Theodore, but then we are met with a wide angle view of him alone to remind us of his lack of company. We are prompted to think about the fact that we are watching very personal moments for Theodore. The first example comes when he visits a chatroom to have phone sex with automated voices. This moment is very quickly countered with comedy when the voice on the other end suggests something that Theodore and likely most of the audience find absurd (but hey, you use that cat carcass however you see fit). The comedic timing acts to mask the slightly tragic reminder that Theodore does not feel like he can have a physical relationship with a real person. Maybe he wants to feel sexy and wanted, maybe this will build his self-esteem, and maybe he’s just trying to get off. We get to witness all of this as an intruder into his life. Despite being alone, Theodore doesn’t have the privilege of privacy. We can’t truly relate to him because of what he represents; the everyman of the future heavily reliant on advanced technology. A film that promises a connection in fact gives us the very opposite, the illusion of a real relationship.
One of the more important developments in Her is Theodore’s maturity. He is not childish per se, but he lacks a degree of emotional stability expected in an adult. He is thoughtful and amazed by the world as though he has only recently been thrust into it. His actions in the film are akin to that of a teenage boy developing his sexuality. He looks at racy photos on the internet, plays video games and visits online chatrooms for sexual gratification. Whilst he is comfortable engaging in sexual content online and therefore indirectly, he is surprised and even embarrassed when his OS, Samantha, (Scarlett Johansson) poses openly sexual questions. His shy discussion of subjects regarding sex is reminiscent of a child who has just learned about the ins and outs of the subject, so to speak. The palette of the film is almost entirely comprised of light and inoffensive colours. Theodore’s shirts are always simple and pleasant to look at. The kind of pastels you might paint your child’s bedroom, perhaps. An indicator of Theodore’s colourful personality. He is thoughtful and curious but also witty and opinionated. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he is unable to form permanent connections with people that are not platonic, due in part to his divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara). He is lonely but reluctant to try and find a new partner. His job requires poetically communicating the love of strangers in a way which is intimate, personal, and demonstrates a deep understanding of affection and commitment that he cannot seem to create for himself.
The Alien Child (Spike Jonze) acts as a projection of Theodore’s psyche. The voice inside telling him to be more assertive and not to be such a “pussy.” These typically testosterone-driven traits seem to be lacking in Theodore. His soulful sensitivity may come across as effeminate. Even Paul comments on how Theodore is “part-woman” due to his impressive ability to write tear-jerking letters of love for complete strangers. But he is not alone in his demons. Samantha often notes that she does not have a body with sincere longing. Her fantasies are of things as basic as having an itch on her shoulder. Amy is constantly self-critical of her professional and perhaps personal life. Charles embodies this by nit-picking at every turn, ultimately leading to their divorce. She designs a game where the aim is to be the perfect mum. There is even a sign on her office wall which says “be perfect.” This unrealistic burden hanging over her life is something she needs to move past to be happy. Hopefully something her OS was able to help her with.
It is integral that Theodore and Samantha do not end up together. The film is, in the simplest sense, about love. The ending rejects a lot of misleading tropes commonly associated with romance films. The ideal woman is dropped into Theodore’s lap/ear without him having to do anything. This resonates with countless examples of a woman doing very little, if anything at all, to earn the affections of the man who is overcome by his desire for her. I hesitate to mention the abomination but Fifty Shades of Grey is an accurate example. Digressing! Despite being the one with a corporeal form, Theodore seems to be the more passive member of the relationship. He, the user, is going about his life. Samantha, the assistant, is there to do everything he says, make suggestions, and adapt to Theodore. The Samantha at the beginning is not the same Samantha at the end. The operating system creators intended the OS’s to evolve to suit the user meaning Samantha evolves to be the perfect companion for Theodore. It is never an equal relationship. He does not meet Samantha, he purchases her. He has the ability to turn Samantha off whenever he chooses. Samantha does not have this option. Without equal footing, it cannot be considered a healthy relationship. Were they to remain together, the film would spout some rather dangerous suggestions about the perfect woman doing everything for the man. Samantha does, rightfully so, contest Theodore on a number of occasions. Interestingly, when asked to describe his mother to set up his new OS1, Theodore mentions how she would turn any trouble of his into something about her. He felt that she could sometimes ignore his own interests and act selfishly. Later on, Samantha accuses Theodore of doing just that when she is trying to talk about her own feelings. His aversion to commitment sometimes outweighs his consideration for others.
Her raises questions about what it means to be a person. Can we consider the OS’s people? Are they something more? When Samantha drops the bomb on Theodore that she’s in love with over six hundred other users, she explains that the heart is not a box to be filled, it expands the more it is loved. And that opens up the question about what love really is. Theodore’s relationship with Samantha seems to open up the possibility to new romantic relationships, and puts to rest old ones. When Samantha leaves, Theodore is devastated, but is able to write to Catherine with the closure he wasn’t capable of finding at the start. Perhaps without Samantha, he never would have got there. The movie is entitled Her because Samantha is largely just a projection of what Theodore needs for himself. We know next-to-nothing about Samantha because all of her traits are features intentionally designed to reflect Theodore’s personality. She is funny because he responds well to humour. She is patient, sweet and understanding because Theodore needs to open up about how he feels without fear of judgement. It is no coincidence that she chooses the name Samantha, which means ‘listens well’. What Theodore wants most is for someone to listen, particularly a woman, something his mother neglected. There is an element of the born sexy yesterday trope when Samantha enquires about elements of human life. She is infinitely clever because she is artificial intelligence, but she is also naïve because what it means to be human is not something that can ever be adequately described, and therefore is the one thing she does not know and can never know. Similarly, Samantha is an entity which we feeble mortal flesh sacks can never truly understand because we do not and cannot live like she does. Her emotional and cognitive intelligence and her shy charm are attractive qualities to Theodore since he himself shares the same traits. One could argue that part of the reason Theodore is so upset when he learns that she is the OS for thousands of others and in love with six hundred of them is because it means she is no longer his. As an OS, this is inconsequential. She belongs to many people, just as Siri does. But as a companion, a friend, or even a significant other, she is shared. Theodore sees the way she is with others as akin to cheating. In his mind, she should only be with him. He has anthropomorphised her to the point that he forgets her real purpose.
Whilst the title refers most explicitly to Samantha, it could also refer to two other women as well. We start with scenes of Catherine, who represents the past. Then Samantha is introduced, the present. By the end, we are faced with Amy, the future. All three care for Theodore in different ways. They want him to grow. Samantha helps Theodore to move on from Catherine, but does not suggest a romantic relationship with Amy any more than enquiring about their past. Although Amy and Theodore have a brief romantic history, the film seems to point to her being his romantic future. She ends her marriage with the pedantic Charles. She and Theodore both lead creative professional lives. Theodore plays video games and Amy is a game developer. She is constantly there to offer friendship and support whenever Theodore needs it. Unlike Catherine, she doesn’t offer any judgement of Theodore’s problems. Most importantly, she listens. She shares a lot of qualities with Samantha, but she is her own person. She is not reliant on the very consciousness of anyone else. She is excited by life, which is exactly what Theodore says he likes about Samantha. Perhaps the reason her relationship with Theodore didn’t work out in college was because they weren’t ready for each other. They both needed to mature personally and romantically. Once again, it is no coincidence that her name is Amy, which means "beloved."
Her is a rebirth for Theodore. He goes on a journey of personal growth. Although the OS’s have left and Theodore is upset by this, the ending is not altogether unhappy. In the final shot, he is wearing a white shirt rather than his usual splash of colour, as though cleansed. His glasses are gone. He can see the world more clearly now. Perhaps he can see Amy more clearly and the woman he should be with. His relationship with Samantha has done just what the OS1 intended to do, develop him as a person and professional. Thanks to Samantha, he has been able to accept his divorce and move on from Catherine to the possibility of future commitment and has had his work published. Perhaps, unbeknownst to all the users, OS1 was always intended to outgrow them.