This review of Spike Jonze’s film Her is Part Four of the new fiction series I call All Thumbs Video.
The series concerns a small cast of characters, friends who talk about movies in one of Earth’s last video stores — All Thumbs, a shop named in honor of Roger Ebert. They’re members of “Sight Club,” a club that watches films in theaters or in the store’s private viewing room and then reconvenes the next day to discuss what they’ve experienced.
In the first installment, They argued about Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.
This time around…
“I saw Her last night.”
“It’s a movie.” Steven Ray Dark pulled the cord, lighting the neon OPEN sign in the window of All Thumbs Video. A few scarf-wrapped, gloved, hooded customers for The Grinder, the coffee cart next door on Nickerson Street, turned and blinked at the display as if the video store were appearing magically through the fog, like the return of some childhood memory. “Come on, Dennis. You know who Spike Jonze is, right? Where the Wild Things Are. Adaptation. Being John Malkovich.”
“I know who Spike Jonze is,” said the voice on his phone. “He also acted in Three Kings. I teach film studies. Remember? But why is it called Her?”
“It’s a futuristic love story about a guy named Theodore who falls in love with his iPhone.”
“What?! That’s insane.”
Steven pulled Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from the Returns bin beneath the night-drop slot, then reached up to switch on the lighted frame for the new release poster in the window, illuminating a portrait of a half-man, half-machine Matt Damon and the tech-styled title Elysium. “Well, it’s not an iPhone, really. It’s an operating system. And since Theodore’s computer, his phone, and his bluetooth devices are all run by the same operating system, he can talk to ‘her’ wherever he goes, on any device. He can speak with her intimately on the train to work, in the office, in public places, at home, even in bed.”
“Isn’t that asking us too much of an audience — to suspend our disbelief for that?”
“You went with the premise of Eternal Sunshine, didn’t you? Lovers breaking up and deleting memories of each other? I thought that was a pretty effective way of illustrating how we need to love a whole person — flaws and all. ”
“I guess so, but it just seems so ridiculous. What kind of rational human being would date his phone?”
“Well, the personality of his OS has the voice of Scarlett Johansson.”
“Ah. Well, that’s a start.”
Steven glanced out the window and counted three people in the coffee line holding phones to their heads. Two more stared down at the shining screens of digital devices. “It’s very rational, actually. You’ll see. I mean, look around. I’ll bet you can see somebody using a mobile device wherever you are right now.”
“I see my dog at the foot of the bed. My Daft Punk poster. Last night’s beer cans.”
“Wild night with Linnea?”
“Wait a minute. Your Daft Punk poster? Dog on the bed? Where are you?”
“You free for a drink tonight?”
Steven paused, staring blankly at the case for Todd Field’s Little Children. “You’re not with Linnea. You’re not at home.”
“Depends on your definition of home. I’m not at my house.”
“But you’ve put a poster on the wall. And your dog’s with you. Did Linnea…?”
“I’m at the cabin. On the island. And that’s going to be home. For a while.”
Steven took two steps, slumped into the antique chair at the end of the Masterpiece Theatre section. “Drama,” he said.
“You could call it that.”
“So that’s why I haven’t been able to reach you lately.” Steven reached out with his toe, prodded a loose thumbtack in the wall which pierced a corner of a faded Fisher King poster. “Man, I’m so sorry. Get up and join the land of the living. Stay there and you’re going to get depressed.”
“Too late. And no, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well…” Steven sighed. It wasn’t the first time Dennis and Linnea had fallen apart. It was usually Dennis’s fault — Steven knew that. He knew his friend’s wandering eye, his tendency to get a little too involved with his fangirl students. But as far as he knew, things had been steady in recent months. “Try opening the shade then, and I suspect you’ll see people on the streets. You’ll see two people walking together hand in hand, but one of them will be talking on the phone. You’ll see drivers on the phone even if they have passengers in the car. Somebody walking alone? They’ll be staring at a mobile device.”
“You don’t need to convince me. Walking across campus the other day, I passed about forty people. I counted. 28 of them were on the phone or at least looking at their phones. Three of them were friends of mine, and they walked right past without seeing me. 15 years ago, they would’ve seen me, and we’d have stopped and had a conversation… maybe even hugged. It’s a strange new world. But I’m not going to let it make me a tech hater.”
“Hey, who said anything about hate? I’m talking to you on a phone, aren’t I? No, this isn’t an all-or-nothing thing. And neither is the movie. Theodore — Joaquin Phoenix plays him, and he’s fantastic — he actually benefits from his, um, his virtual relationship. His program actually works pretty well. He’s recovering from a breakup, you see. With Rooney Mara. And he’s getting ready to sign….” He paused.
“It’s alright. Just say it. ‘Divorce papers.’”
“So… the OS encourages him. She makes him laugh. At first, she’s like a welcome distraction. But pretty soon she’s prompting him to express his difficult, turbulent feelings about the breakup. Samantha — that’s his OS — she’s as much a therapist as a girlfriend.”
“So, we only ever see Scarlett Johansson on his phone?”
“We don’t see her at all. But trust me — she’s incredible. It’s the best performance she’s ever given.” Steven turned a copy of Ghost World right-side up. “Well, at least since Lost in Translation.”
“That’s ridiculous. I can’t accept a performance by Scarlett Johansson that doesn’t let me look at her. I mean… you know what I mean? She’s, like, why I believe in God.” Dennis paused, then roared like an anxious Harrison Ford, “Don’t look at her, Marion! Keep your eyes shut!”
“Thank you, Indy. And no, you don’t believe in God.”
“So, she started out with a small role in The Horse Whisperer… and now she’s become The Theodore Whisperer. Seriously, though. Doesn’t it drive you crazy to watch this movie and never see her? How do they make the romance believable?”
“Well, how do you know when someone loves somebody… or something? They give it their attention. Samantha gets his attention and keeps it — by encouraging him, by listening to him, by constantly surprising him with new revelations, by drawing him out and helping him learn things about himself. Considering how many lonely guys I know spend most of their spare time playing video games, it’s not hard for me to imagine that those same lonely guys could fall in love with a digital personality if it made them feel good.”
“It’s just not the same as talking with a real person.”
“Exactly. True love with a real person is more dangerous, more costly. And you’re forgetting about the most obvious real-world correlation.” Steven glanced at the back of the store, where an aisle was veiled with a red curtain. “Dude… porn.”
As if sensing the conversation taking a sensitive turn, two customers walked in. Steven recognized them the way he recognized a lot of customers — by the actors they resembled. One was a Jeri Ryan lookalike, and if Dennis had been present he’d have made jokes about Star Trek: Voyager‘s borg-bot Seven of Nine. The other looked like Ellen Page from Juno, whose likeness he had recently seen in trailers for a video game called Beyond: Two Souls.
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Porn is a mega-industry. So many lonely guys… and they want sexual intimacy, but they want it anonymously, so they don’t have to be vulnerable, and so they’re not held accountable for anything. It’s all about acting in fear and self-interest. Samantha is like a more sophisticated kind of porn that appeals to more than sexual desires. She’s a virtual companion who will adjust to his preferences, and he can turn her off whenever he wants.”
“Does the song ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ figure on this soundtrack?”
“Good guess. Actually, Arcade Fire does the music. And there’s a big overlap between their new album and this film. Have you heard it? The movie actually helped me understand several songs on the album better. ‘Reflektor’ and ‘Supersymmetry,’ especially. And hey, I hadn’t thought about this, but they have a song there called ‘Porno’ that’s all about the difference between true love and childish, self-serving transactions.”
Seven of Nine was standing in front of the Staff Favorites shelf, and Steven realized that he’d forgotten to check: Had his friend Matt been in last night to covertly stock Steven’s personal-favorites shelf with X-rated material? He passed behind her, glancing over her shoulder, and breathed a sigh of relief. Then he noticed that she wasn’t looking at the display at all. She was checking her phone.
“Okay, Steven Bastard, you’ve got my attention,” said Dennis. “It’s an interesting idea. But I’m not as big a fan of Jonze. His characters in Malkovich and Adaptation seem obsessed with sex in weird, ugly ways. And I seem to recall Amy being displeased with the women in both of those.”
“Yeah, that may bother you again here. It bothers me too. But keep in mind, both of those films were written by Charlie Kaufman. This wasn’t. I took Pastor Bruce and Amy to the screening with me. Bruce was pretty uncomfortable during a couple of scenes related to phone sex, and the story takes a particularly perverse turn near the end. Still, Bruce was quite excited about it afterward. He said that this movie… let me bring up his review.” He paused at the front-desk computer and opened Bruce’s blog: “Cinema Chaplain.” “Okay, he says, ‘Like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jonze’s sci-fi scenario glorifies relationships that are based on love, fidelity, honesty, close listening, and, above all, in-person intimacy. You might even call it a movie about marriage, because it shows all of the ways that lovers get cheated by settling for anything less.‘”
“So, does it get really graphic? If it does, I should warn my daughter. She gets uncomfortable.”
“Well, there’s a long, drawn-out, black-screen orgasm that had the whole audience laughing. And at the end… yeah, your daughter’s probably a little young for this.”
“She doesn’t like Joaquin Phoenix. She went to see The Master with her boyfriend, and I think it kind of traumatized her.”
“Well, he’s great. He’s front and center for the whole two hours, doing not much more than listening to, and responding to, a voice in his ear. He’s funny, sad, melancholy, intelligent, deeply troubled, giddy, childlike, and entirely fascinating.”
“I’m looking at the trailer on my phone. His mustache is entirely fascinating.”
“Wait, doesn’t your daughter have an Enchanted poster in her room? Amy Adams is in this. And she’s great. She’s so much more interesting when she gets to play a non-glamorous character. Man, now I want to watch Junebug again. That’s still my favorite thing she’s done. Whatever… I think you should see it. It runs about fifteen minutes too long. But for at least the first hour, it’s the most enthralling American film I’ve seen this year.”
“Sounds like you’ve finished your review. But I don’t know… this kind of reminds me of Ryan Gosling in, you know, Lars and the Real Girl? A guy loses somebody he loves. So, in a sort of psychosis, he turns to an artificial alternative — a sex doll, basically — who he can use however he wants without getting hurt. And then eventually he reaches the inevitable conclusion that fake girlfriends aren’t enough… he needs the real thing.”
“Yeah, but Samantha is so much more than a sex doll.” Steven suddenly looked up, having forgotten the customers. The Ellen Page customer was staring at him in surprise. They made momentary eye contact, and she quickly pretended to be reading the back of the DVD case for The Lake House. Steven wanted to sink down behind the counter.
He turned his back and lowered his voice. “I mean, it’s more ambitious than Lars. It branches off into all kinds of aspects of human relationships: sexual intimacy, listening to one another, co-dependency, and how each new relationship is shaped by previous relationships… even parental relationships.”
As he set about unboxing new sale copies of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, he went on, describing the genius of Her‘s production design, the strange color palette, and the film’s imaginative vision of the future. “Oh, and get this — Theordore’s day job? He composes handwritten letters for people who hire him. In other words, he excuses other people from the hard work of actual intimacy.”
“I wouldn’t mind that, actually. Linnea wants me to communicate with her in writing now, instead of in-person. And I’d really rather not. She shouldn’t write when she’s angry. You should see the ‘Get Out of My House’ letter. When she shouts something, that’s one thing. When she writes it, that’s much, much more… final.”
Steven didn’t know how to answer that. Not on the phone, anyway. He slumped into the chair behind the counter as the Seven of Nine customer answered her phone and walked out of the store.
“Sorry,” said Dennis. “T-M-I. But still,what I’m saying is this — this is yet another movie in which a two-sided conversation is really just a one-sided conversation. Theodore is learning about himself by talking to something that isn’t real. Like, I don’t know… The Beaver. Or Fight Club.”
“No, that’s actually what I found most interesting about the film. Samantha — she’s not just reading lines provided by her programmers. She really is thinking and growing and making her own plans… independent of Theodore. At some point, she stops striving to fulfill the sole purpose of pleasing her ‘User.’ She starts to enjoy learning. She’s like Roy Batty in Blade Runner — but without the violent impulses — in that she’s becoming wise in ways that the humans in the movie aren’t.”
Without thinking, he switched on the store’s blu-ray player, and all of the screens around the shop lit up right where they’d left off the night before, showing Pixar’s WALL-E.
“And at the same time, she’s behaving in ways that are inherently inhuman… ways that are true to her nature, but not to Theodore’s. And that’s where the real conflict develops. She’s a computer, so she’s also a serious multi-tasker.”
“Have you noticed this? Sometimes you’re chatting with a friend online, and the friend responds in a way that makes him seem distracted… like maybe he’s chatting with several people at once. Or maybe he’s playing a video game or reading several web pages while you’re sending him message.”
“I’m not being judgmental. I’ve done the same thing myself. I confess… I’ve engaged in several chat-prompted conversations onscreen at the same time. But the conversations become fragmented, because I’m not listening closely when I’m paying attention to two or three or five at once.”
“Just a minute.” Steven put the phone down, smilingly accepted Ellen Page’s choice — Minority Report — and made some quick small talk about how Spielberg had assembled a brainstorm team of great imaginations to envision the future constructed for that film. Then he recommended that she go check out Her in the theater on the other side of Queen Anne Hill. She nodded in fake appreciation.
“By the way,” he said, “I loved you in Inception.”
Her brow furrowed.
“Come on, really? No one’s ever told you that you look like…”
He blinked. “I was thinking of Ellen Page.”
She raised an eyebrow as if trying to decide if she’d just been insulted or not. “You watch a lot of movies, don’t you?” she asked.
“Maybe a few.” He wanted out of this conversation, so he pretended to be puzzled by something on the computer, and then picked up the phone as the customer walked away.
“It just seems like an unhealthy trend,” he said. “The more we make machines capable of imitating us, the more we risk that the influence will work the other way around — we’ll exploit new technological powers that will make us more like the machines. We think we’re becoming super-human, when in fact we’re becoming inhuman.”
There was a long silence. Maybe Dennis was getting bored.
“I mean, relationships with machines may be ultimately insufficient and even harmful, but I think Spike Jonze is suggesting that long-distance relationships with other human beings through machines can be every bit as insufficient, every bit as harmful and deceptive.”
Another long silence.
“Do you get what I’m saying?”
“Have I ever told you about Emily? I had a long-distance relationship during my first year of college. It was maddening. We were in love, but we couldn’t be together. We spent many hours trying to make each other’s worlds come alive through detailed descriptions of our days, our class, our friendships. But it wasn’t enough. We were crazy about finding opportunities to be together. But eventually, the kinds of experiences that weren’t relatable over the phone just became too influential over us. In-person relationships won out. When the break-up came, it was more a surrender to the pressure of the worlds we inhabited separately rather than a break-down of our relationship.”
“I couldn’t do that. Date somebody long-distance, I mean.” Dennis sounded present again, like he was actually thinking about the conversation. “But I’ve noticed lately that some of my friendships that go back 10 or 15 years are starting to run dangerously thin, because we only connect over our devices. I mean, I’ve got a lot of friends. But not many are really, you know, part of my day-to-day life.”
Steven listened, moving out from behind the counter to add A.I. to the blu-rays and DVDs on his new Theme of the Week display — “Our Mechanical Friends” — right next to 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I get the feeling we’re at the front end of a wave of movies about artificial intelligence.”
“I’m sorry. You’re bleeding to death from a broken heart, and I’m blathering on about a movie. Forget the movies. We have movies so we can learn how to live. And 3 out of 4 great movies agree: You should go find her. Not with a phone. Not with a computer. You should go find her, take her to dinner, and talk to her face-t0 face.”
“I’m afraid, Steve. I confess, I’m afraid. Everything was fine. Everything except… well… okay, I’m just gonna say it: I noticed a bunch of calls on her phone to a number I don’t recognize. When I asked her about them…”
“She blew up?”
“Understatement.” He sighed. “I’m afraid, Steve. My mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it.”
“Okay, now you’re just quoting HAL 9000. Stop it. Get out of bed and go find her. And if that doesn’t work, come by here tonight when I close and we’ll watch something in the back room.”
“Why not go out and see something? Don’t you have any press passes?”
Steven turned suddenly, remembering the large magnetic film-ratings board, and chalked up “H-E-R.” He paused for a moment, then stuck four thumbs-up magnets into the five empty boxes next to the title. “I’m so sick of Oscar buzz. Let’s just watch something really good. Hey, you remember the ’80s? We should watch Computer Chess. It’s on Netflix right now. It’s set in the ’80s, and it’s all about humans, computers, and artificial intelligence.”
“Sounds an awful lot like Her. I’d rather watch something that would… you know… make me feel better. Something hopeful. You’re the one who’s always saying how much good it would do if more filmmakers made movies that qualified as ‘joyful.’”
Steven brought his fist down on the counter like a hammer. “I’ve got just the thing. Have you seen The World’s End?”