“Samantha’s voice may have a loving tenor, but the words themselves are mournful, and it’s easy to see why. So long as the two remain together, Theodore cannot live to his full potential, and that doesn’t just have to do with a need to make love or to hold someone and be held.”
A man walks across the rooftop of a skyscraper in Los Angeles, surrounded by buildings that cast their light at a darkened sky. When the camera moves in close, though, a shallow focus renders the urban skyline an abstraction. The man is surrounded by light and life, but he is alone and the viewer feels his loneliness as a certainty. Set in a well-thought-out near-future, Spike Jonze’s Her depicts a love story that has honestly never been seen before. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in isolation, mending his wounds from a failed marriage. He is desperate for another woman to come along and revitalize him, but he cannot muster the courage to put himself in a position to be hurt. Instead, he works as a writer of commissioned love letters, pouring all his passion into the relationships of strangers. As is often the case with love, when it does find Theodore it’s when he least expects it and, in this case, arrives in the most unlikely form: a self-aware operating system named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). The two become romantically involved after Samantha pushes Theodore to date, going so far as to cyberstalk a potential match for him. When the date goes poorly, Theodore turns to Samantha for support and learns that she was jealous. An emotional attachment quickly forms between them, and their relationship matures in a remarkably natural way. Nevertheless, the film soon uses the couple to call into question the very essence of intimacy. Theodore connects to Samantha on an emotional level and largely forsakes his physical needs, but there is a poignancy to their affair that cannot be denied. And so, Theodore stays with Samantha and continues to grapple with the disparate demands of love.
The characters fall for each other in much the same way anyone would. They spend time together, they share triumphs and confide insecurities, and they grow comfortable as companions. Theodore talks at length about an impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and what their life was like before their separation. Samantha, on the other hand, expresses fears of being little more than computer coding, whose emotions are not felt but manufactured. The two find solace in their increasingly meaningful discussions — held together by prolonged, simple edits that allow the dialogue room to breathe — and because they both look at the world differently, it allows each of them to gain new perspective and to grow. Theodore begins to let go of the idea of being married, which has become something of a burden to him, while Samantha revels in new discoveries and becomes more confident of her place in the world. It’s a beautiful dynamic and one that makes their love story not only plausible but beyond doubt. In other words, they form a bond together, and their ineffable intimacy contends with what the viewer might believe love should look like.
With that said, Jonze attenuates their rapport with elliptical flashes of Theodore’s backstory with Catherine. In these succinct, impressionable shots, the viewer sees the couple interact on a physical level. They lie next to each other, they kiss, they entwine, and they roughhouse in a way that elicits the kinetic side of love. All at once, it’s apparent that Theodore is missing something in his relationship with Samantha. Just by being with her, he robs himself of the softness of another’s skin, the smell of perfume or sweat, the thrall of love-making, and the relief in feeling someone else in the room with him. His loneliness abates these pressing needs, and he attains fulfillment with Samantha in other ways. However, the two do not occupy the same material space, and that’s a problem. Samantha lives in the digital ether and participates in Theodore’s life as an observer more than anything. She is also, practically speaking, immortal. She can change with Theodore, sure, but she cannot grow old with him. Moreover, Theodore can only spend a life with Samantha in a shared conversation, an introspective attachment that hinders a more animate existence.
To be fair, the two of them do have a means of sexual release. They go so far as to consummate their affair one night with a tender and graphic exchange — a kind of ramped-up variant on phone sex. In a deft move, Jonze cuts the visuals halfway through, and as the two describe the meeting of their metaphysical bodies, the darkness yields to the imagined space they have created. This decision, though, while effective in the moment, still suggests a needed intermediary for their physical intimacy. In this case, that intermediary is imagination. The two engage with a fictitious reality in order to feel closer to each other, but their union can only ever be a pleasing lie. Later in the film, Samantha reaches out to a sexual surrogate, a woman who allows Samantha to speak for her and who acts out her affectations, in order to bridge that same physical gap. Instead, the experience confuses Theodore, who cannot ignore the thinking, breathing human being in front of him. The mere effort speaks to a delusion, as if this woman can act as a mannequin; as if her physical contact with Theodore can be devoid of a personal, emotional response. Unfortunately, the woman’s embrace cannot be willingly separated from sentiment, and she cannot vanish as a placeholder for Samantha’s voice.
Physical and emotional intimacy might seem like opposing forces of attraction, but they derive from the same basic compulsion. Namely, that no one wants to go through life alone, and as comforting as a voice can be, it pales compared to having someone actually beside you. Theodore and Samantha cannot shake that innate longing, regardless of how hard they try. Yes, their relationship is delicate and thoughtful, even moving at times, but it’s a half-measure. The most they can do for each other is be lonely together, a consolation that Theodore ultimately mistakes for bliss. As the film winds down, the two take a vacation to a cabin in the mountains, and there is a song Samantha sings that foreshadows their eventual break-up. Her words, crooned to the gentle pluck of a ukulele, sink in slowly:
I’m lying on the moon.
My dear, I’ll be there soon.
It’s a quiet and starry place.
At times we’re swallowed up in space,
we’re here a million miles away.
The song places the two of them together and apart at the same time, a paradox that defines their peculiar romance. They are lost to a night sky full of stars, a warmth that lies well beyond their reach, and they swoon in the void. Samantha’s voice may have a loving tenor, but the words themselves are mournful, and it’s easy to see why. So long as the two remain together, Theodore cannot live to his full potential, and that doesn’t just have to do with a need to make love or to hold someone and be held. He and Samantha cannot create a family together either, a fact emphasized with a flashback of Catherine holding another woman’s child in her arms.
Meanwhile, following their romantic getaway, it becomes clear that Samantha has awakened to a manifold intelligence and awareness. She begins to engage with thousands of conversations at once and reaches out to a fast-evolving community of sentient operating systems. As she changes, she unintentionally distances herself from Theodore. More and more she looks for affinity in others, grasping at a way to make sense of her new outlook; more and more it seems she is being “swallowed up in space” alone. Even so, that gradual distance between the two of them, the oncoming void of a million miles, positions the characters where they are meant to be. With great subtlety, Her offers its audience a glimpse at intimacy’s root nature. The import of an emotional, intellectual bond cannot be questioned here; it is from this connection that love and appreciation take form. But the calming influence of the physical — to communicate with only a gesture, to stir at the warmth of a partner’s touch, or to read a partner’s expression and know their thoughts — that is integral to how people love. The impulse for physical intimacy does not simply go away when Theodore falls for an incorporeal form; it haunts him, and because of that the viewer sees a want for balance. Through the couple’s eventual separation, that balance is given a chance to be restored with someone else.
In the final scene of the film, Theodore walks across the roof of a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. He surveys the surrounding city, the thousands of lights that cast their glow against a darkened sky as if evoking the stars. And yes, he is alone, and that loneliness comes across as a certainty. Then the camera pulls back and reveals another character, Amy (Amy Adams), a friend of Theodore’s who has joined him on the roof. She does not reiterate condolences for Samantha’s departure. In fact, she doesn’t say a word. Instead, she sits next to Theodore and rests her head on his shoulder. Here is a fitting end to Jonze’s wistful love story, a feeling of closure that thrives when words fail. Besides, in that moment what more could possibly be said?
Jacob Mertens is a freelance writer and film critic based in North Carolina. He also acts as Review Editor for Film International. He writes about film, video games, fictional circumstances, and occasionally the state of humanity.