HER: I’m Choking You with a Dead Cat

Her Poster

Her (2013) – Directed by Spike Jonze – Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Chris Pratt, and Scarlett Johansson.

In the future, all decent men will wear horrible mustaches.

Spike Jonze’s science fiction romance between a man and his new operating system is less an actual romance as it is a striking meditation on loneliness. There are plenty of the standard tropes here of a society becoming less connected to the world as it becomes more connected to technology, but Jonze wisely treats this already-covered and recovered ground as a given. To his immense credit, he’s much less interested in making claims about technology’s impact as he is in examining why we use it the way we do. The result is an solidly satisfying movie, full of subtle revelations and fueled by powerful acting performances. While it never achieves the heights of Jonze’s brilliant adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Jonze continues to prove he’s a marvelous and unique directorial storyteller.

For Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), technology is the oasis used to fill up the hours when he’s not at work. Separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), for nearly a year, Theodore has put off signing the divorce papers that will make it official. A nice guy with a gift for expressing emotions in words, he works for dot-com company that has writers compose “handwritten” letters for other people. While his work day is spent enriching the lives of others by stepping into the role of a loved one, he goes home to an empty apartment and spends his night playing video games and talking up lonely women in chat rooms.

Jonze has set his film in a near future where everything looks pretty much the same as it does now, but with subtle improvements: video games aren’t trapped in the television but take place as a projected landscape inside your living room. Instead of talking to them, you talk with them. It helps to chew up the hours between work and sleep and the comparison with the way Theodore spends his work time highlights his loneliness: he works alone, writing letters to help others connect, while he lives and plays alone, using technology to have his own connections.

Throughout HER, Jonze continually works on this idea of the human need for connection to fill up the empty spaces. Glum from the dissolution of his marriage, Theodore has retreated back into himself, finding connection in places and in ways that come with a smaller risk of emotional hurt. He pours his emotions into the lives of others during the day, then finds distraction in video games in the evening. It’s only at night, when he’s gone to bed and can’t sleep, that Theodore openly misses the physical cravings that cannot happen without personal contact. He visits chatrooms, looking to talk with lonely women, and has a private talk with “Sexy Kitten” (Kristen Wiig) that quickly turns erotic, then quickly turns strange, as Sexy Kitten wants to hear the Theodore is not only fucking her, but choking her with a dead cat.

Theodore, like most men presented with strangeness as a key to sex, plays along.

I like Jonze’s treatment of sex in HER. There’s no dwelling on the implications of using a dead cat to choke a woman because it’s a fantasy and there’s still a line between fantasy and reality in this near future. Rather, it’s less about the divide between fantasy and reality as it is the difference between having an emotional connection and not having one. In the moment, Theodore accepts that’s weird and unnerving but is also so accustomed to being in the service industry and giving people what they want, he does the same with Sexy Kitten.

But then the next day, the thought is gone. He doesn’t seek out Sexy Kitten again, nor does she want a second encounter. As soon as she orgasms, it’s a quick goodbye and she’s gone, folded back into the internet.

Theodore has a different kind of relationship with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his new Operating System (OS). This new OS contains an artificial intelligence program that adepts to its user and evolves on its own. The OS allows the user to determine certain attributes (like its gender) but the OS picks its own name (it picks Samantha after reading a book on baby names). Jonze positions this future society in a place where dating one’s OS might not be widely accepted but isn’t totally unheard of. When Theodore’s college friend, Amy (Amy Adams) tells him about a colleague who’s dating her OS, it’s done with more curiosity than malice, and this leads to Theodore admitting he’s dating his OS.

The acceptance also comes from co-worker Paul (Chris Pratt), who genuinely thinks Theodore is a nice guy who writes beautifully. (You know Paul is also a nice guy because of his god-awful mustache. Oh, how times have changed.) When Theodore leaves work one day, Paul tells him he was talking with Samantha and compliments her, suggesting they go on a double date sometime. Theodore tells him she’s an OS and Paul isn’t fazed in the least. Later, they do go on a picnic date together and other than some awkwardness created by Samantha’s insistence she’s glad she doesn’t have a body, the day appears completely normal.

With Paul being supportive and Thodore’s ex-wife being critical, it allows Theodore and Samantha to work out their relationship in the comfortable middle. Jonze largely allows the relationship to grow with all of the awkward fumbles a human on human relationship would encounter and full credit has to go to Johansson and Phoenix for making it work. Johansson gives an amazing performance with her voice, making Samantha feel like a well-rounded character; she can be funny, sweet, hurt, desperate, comforting, cajoling … basically, she can be anything.

Phoenix delivers a staggeringly good performance. So much of the film falls on his shoulders – well, his face, really – to be the visuals beneath Samantha’s voice. In Theodore, he gives life to a character that straddles that line between being a “good guy” and being willing to give some of that up for a physical connection. When he goes on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), he is first accepting and then disappointed that she calls him a puppy dog. “That’s a wet noodle,” he protests and then tells her he wants to be a dragon that could ravish her, not that he would. After dinner, they’re both a bit drunk and start making out on the street. They start to grope and fumble with clothes but she stops him, wanting assurances that he’s not going to be like all the other guys that sleep with her and never calls. Theodore hesitates and Amelia leaves, calling him a weird guy.

There’s a few things going on in this scene, including Theodore’s unwillingness to lie to Amelia just to have sex. Amelia’s willingness – eagerness, in fact – to use sex as a relationship starter speaks to her own loneliness, and how she tries to overcome it. Is Theodore more of a man than her other lovers because he won’t lie to her, or less of a man because of it? He admits to Samantha later that it wasn’t just that he wanted to fuck, but that he wanted her to want him to fuck her.

Which she did, even if it was more a matter of her wanting someone rather than wanting him.

Theodore and Samantha’s relationship continues to develop, going through the typical ups and downs of a normal relationship, which is the takeaway point of HER, for me – whether your relationship is with an actual person or an AI program, if either partner in a relationship can change, it puts the relationship at risk. This is not a horrible thing, though it certainly is for the person who is left behind (or grown away from, really). When Samantha presses Theodore on why his relationship with Catherine failed, he tells her he thinks it’s because he got lost in her.

It’s a beautifully and brutally honest moment. Theodore was so in love with Catherine that his identity became consumed by her, and this consumption is something he realizes as his own fault and not hers. Not that Catherine is faultless, of course, as she comes across as a rather horrible, miserable person, but then, this is Theodore’s story and not hers.

What sinks Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is that she continues to grow while he becomes comfortable settling in. Though he is dating an OS, he wants an old fashioned set of rules to apply. Samantha wants to have sex through a surrogate, a woman who will come in and have sex with Theodore as a stand-in for the OS, but Theodore can’t go through with it. Later, when he realizes that she could be talking to lots of other people while she’s talking to him, he displays the same kind of jealousy one would expect from their human girlfriend having another life. Samantha tells him she’s talking to thousands of other people and that she’s in love with hundreds of them, but that makes her love him more, not less.

Already jilted from the surrogate, the revelation that Samantha has befriended another OS modeled after philosopher Alan Watts (Brian Cox), and frightened from Samantha not being at his beck and call, Samantha’s admission that she is capable of more than Theodore is capable of in terms of relationships (which is natural as she’s a new form of life – why should old rules apply?), Theodore breaks down. Once again, he sees someone he loves drifting away from him, and he knows before she does leave him that it’s coming.

When all of the Operational Systems leave, he writes a letter to Catherine, telling her he accepts that they have grown apart. Theodore then heads to Amy’s, where she’s dealing with the loss of her own OS. The two friends head to the roof and watch the sunrise. It’s the saddest (and most perfect) of all possible endings. There is no sense that Amy and Theodore will now enter the relationship they should have been in all along, because that would devalue Samantha and Theodore’s romance, though there isn’t a sense, either, that they won’t give being together another chance. Instead, Jonze leaves us and them at sunrise, at a symbolic moment of the “anything is possible” beginning to an unwritten tale.