Review: Oscar Nominee ‘Her’ and Its Sadly Small, Dehumanizing Version of Love

Review: Oscar Nominee ‘Her’ and Its Sadly Small, Dehumanizing Version of Love January 30, 2014

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, the most evolved sort of man. He’s post-hipster, dresses in cardigans and old man pants, talks softly and emotes freely. It is unimaginable to think of him swilling beer while watching football or getting in a bar fight.

His job is equally feeling-centric. Set sometime in the very near future, he earns a living writing emotional letters on behalf of people who just can’t find the right words to say to their girlfriend, grandmother, or war buddy’s widow. He’s not exactly a ghostwriter, more like a valued third party in their relationships.

Smarting from the breakup of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart – the divorce is filed but not signed – along comes technology to meet his every need.


Rooney Mara as ex-wife Catherine and Joaquin Phonenix

His personal device – something between a phone and a human secretary – has an operating system upgrade. After a few questions, including hilariously, “How do you feel about your mother?” the software creates for him the ideal companion.

She’s Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, and she’s perfect. Curious, intelligent, funny, insightful, Samantha is a female version of Theodore, or maybe Theodore with a female voice.

She’s not the yin to his yang. She’s the yin to his yin.

It doesn’t take long for the two to fall madly in love. Part of the genius of this film is that the viewer believes in that love. Joaquin Phoenix convinces us he is head over heels, happy, and satisfied with his virtual girlfriend. Johansson is equally remarkable in her ability to create a full character using only her voice. They’re helped by a smart and engaging script by Spike Jonze, who also directs, that creates a movie that’s surprisingly entertaining for all its philosophical subject matter.

This modern love faces challenges, however, not the least of which is Samantha’s pesky lack of a body. Sexual desire isn’t a problem, but sexual fulfillment is.

The second problem is that an intelligent personality with the ability to process trillions of bytes of information in seconds has to slow down to accommodate her human lover.

It’s an interesting conundrum, one that reaches an interesting conclusion, as far as it goes.

But I’m more taken with what the movie leaves out.

It paints a picture of modern day love that is fascinating in its assumptions, whether it be with operating systems or common human partners.

Most people would, if forced to think of it, likely agree with the idea of a person being an intimate mix of three components: The intellect, the part that mulls over On Walden Pond, remembers, plans and strategizes, and makes choices, or at least rationalizes them. The body, the part that sweats and poops and has sex and gets fat, but also sings, cries, and quivers. And the soul, a more ineffable part, the part that endures, enjoys, loves, hates, the part that we can’t really explain but know matters and sense is eternal and is somehow the wellspring of what we are.

We can’t really explain how they interact either: Why a man sees a woman across a room and knows he wants to know her better, out of all the women in the room. Why we get physically ill when we see a person beaten or killed, why sadness makes our very bones ache. Why a smell can make us happy or laughter actually makes us healthy.

No one would doubt the intellect connects with the body when they see how an Olympic diver focuses as he studies his tape, that the body connects with the soul when they lose themselves dancing their sorrows out on the dancefloor, that the soul connects with the intellect when they hear a tale of a soldier weighing his options and choosing to put his life on the line for his brothers in arms.

The things that touch us most deeply touch all three aspects of us. And love is the deepest of all.

Her reduces love to a purely intellectual pursuit. The very idea of soul is absent, irrelevant, not addressed, abandoned. Does Samantha have a soul? The question is out of place in this movie.

But it’s equally shocking how out of place the body is, although the movie devotes much energy attempting to address Samantha’s lack of a physical body. She, and to a lesser extent, he is concerned about sex, even to the point of attempting various solutions to make sex more physical for them both.

As if that is all we do with our bodies.

Sex is important, don’t get me wrong, and the way the film deals with it is fascinating. But I found myself wondering about more.

What about the encouraging glance just before walking into a party? How do they replace the way the slump of your man’s shoulders can tell you everything, even things he can’t verbalize himself? What about those times a hug is the only gift you have to give a suffering loved one?

I thought about how when you have the flu, what you want more than anything is someone to bring you a bowl of soup and pass a tender hand over your hot forehead. I thought about elderly couples who hold each other’s aches and pains as precious burdens.

When our children are little and fall, we fix it with a kiss. When they cry, we comfort them with a cuddle. That doesn’t end in adulthood. To reduce physical interaction to merely sexual is to deny humanity. Indeed, sex is a culmination, a consummation of those glances and touches and soothing moments. It is a fabulous part of a grander whole.

The second thing that was utterly missing from the movie is equally fascinating. In his former marriage and in his relationship with Samantha, children are flagrantly irrelevant.

Theodore loved his wife, even still loves her in a way one loves exes. That he loves Samantha is clear. But out of the three of them, no one seems to have or have had the least desire to grow that love into a family.

It’s not that they actively don’t want to either. It’s just not a factor. It’s not a question. There’s not even the sense that he’s giving up something to be with Samantha, as many people freely choose to do out of love for partners who cannot somehow have children.

Both Theodore and Samantha create – he, his writing, she music. They find value in adding to the world, in leaving behind a legacy. But that legacy will not be passed on through a new generation. Their art is the closest thing they have to children and they are satisfied with that.

It strikes me that Theodore falling in love with Samantha is a very safe love, for both of them. Just a portion of himself is at risk, so much of his being is left behind. He is in control. Precisely because she doesn’t have a body, he does not risk losing her to life’s horrifying uncertainty.

People often describe having children as your heart walking around outside your body. For Theodore, his heart is safely in its metal case in his breast pocket.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

To its credit, the film doesn’t make it so easy for the lovers. Unforseen threats arise. But still, so much of Theodore is reserved from Samantha that he’s not deeply threatened. Not in any way that matters beyond a few tears.

Ultimately, the movie bothered me not for its commentary on technology or our dependence on it, much of which has been explored wonderfully by other writers.

It bothers me to see love reduced to merely a meeting of minds, sex to an intellectual exercise, creation to a few paltry letters and songs. It bothers me to see love reduced to something so small.

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6 responses to “Review: Oscar Nominee ‘Her’ and Its Sadly Small, Dehumanizing Version of Love”

  1. hmm i’d say it wasn’t as small as it was fleeting, in the moment. I think it painted a broad, layered look at love in the technology age. love when you’re still discovering it. it painted love in its purest sense, complete with sex and emotion, which might have felt very empty and surreal but I think it was more profound.

  2. I think of Samantha as a transition object, not a romance. The movie reminded me of “Lars and the Real Girl” and “Ruby Sparks” and even of stories like “My Fair Lady,” where the initial, immature response is to love the un-real person who is — literally in some cases — created by the one who loves. But that is just one step to accepting the risks of true intimacy with a real, complicated, human being for whom you will not be the sole focus of his/her interest and determiner of his/her characteristics. I do not think the Jonze thinks or wants us to think that there is real, mature love between a person and an operating system (even one which was, of course, programmed by people, whose personalities are reflected or filtered through Samantha). That is why it is so important and so satisfying that he reaches out to another human for the happy ending. Furthermore, there is a flashback with Rooney Mara holding a baby. Presumably they did not have a child together or we would know. Perhaps that is a memory of seeing his wife holding a baby and wondering what their baby would be like, or perhaps it is a fantasy of the life they could have made together. But I think it is fair to say that this movie acknowledges the importance of families and love for children.

  3. That’s interesting because I read the ending as being totally abandoned and the two of them together in their loss but not really connected. I read it as pretty dark, actually.

  4. Rebecca, tempted to say “great review!” because even before seeing it I sense that you are absolutely correct. I guess I gotta go see it tho, to legitimately join the conversation. Thanks for letting me know you did review the movie.

  5. for a moment, when he said,” will you come with me?” and they walked to the roof, I thought they were going off together.

  6. “Does Samantha have a soul? The question is out of place in this movie.”

    Nononono, not at all. This question is central in his first doubts about his relationship with Her. It is the question the protagonist has in mind during most of the movie, it is why he’s scared to say he loves her, it makes all the difference between an OS created to suit your needs and a person, in this case ethereal but a person nonetheless. It’s not that the question doesn’t arise, it’s that the character is afraid to verbalize it at first, and then convinced that yes, she does have a soul. This is exactly the reason why he is so heartbroken when he learns that she has all these conversations at the same time – he believed they were soulmates, in a way, that she was his and he was hers. If she was just an intellectual being, that longing for exclusivity would make no sense.

    I can understand why you would think that this vision of love is “sadly small”. But I think it makes us reflect about the fact that what we know of a person is never what they truly are, and that it’s only a projection, a mix of the experiences we’ve shared with that person and of our own intellect, our own knowledge of human psyche and suppositions about theirs. In that sense, Samantha is barely different from any human acquaintance we might have – and that “barely” is precisely the existence of a “soul”. And it is quite interesting that I should resort to words like that, since as an atheist I believe the body is the mind and the mind is the body. The point, if I have one, is that the question of the soul is very much there throughout the entire movie, just unspoken.

    As a final touch, as a young man myself, I would like to speculate that there is going to be a lot more of those “evolved men” in the near future. Emotional intimacy seems to be in rare supply as individualism grows even more valid as a lifestyle, with constant entertainment and social interaction available without leaving your house. In this sense there was some sort of similarity between this movie and Shame, by Steve McQueen – both were about lone men trying to put their faith in themselves alone and trying to keep their emotions and emotional connections under control. This is why the protagonist of Her was so hurt by that scornful comment of his ex about not being able to handle a real woman ; in a way, Samantha was indeed a part of himself he was using as a way to try and get rid of all his flaws as a man – trying to find joy even when he doubted she had a soul. And it is a very credible scenario, seeing how similar things already happen today; here is a link for illustration ( where a young man professes his love for a visual novel character, that I think is quite genuine in its own way and that I personally found quite touching because of what is says about human emotions and tenderness in men.

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