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Learning from loneliness

Theodore Twombly

Spike Jonze’s latest feature Her is set in Los Angeles in the not-so-distant future, but there are no football games played on jet packs, hovercrafts, or even beverage-serving robots. Jonze’s futuristic cityscape departs from our 2014 existence in much more subtle ways. Skyscrapers are a bit more impressive. The pants are a little bit higher and are worn without belts; collars are much harder to distinguish from the rest of the shirt. Even the kaleidoscopic patterns of the camera lens flares seem ever so anomalous. The world of Her is mainly distinguished, however, by the existence of a new artificially intelligent operating system—simply referred to as an OS in the film—that can grow, learn, and “feel” like a person. What’s so compelling about Her is that in a world where everything is more advanced, we’re still lonely. Our struggles with identity have not disappeared.

Spike Jonze has long explored the struggle of finding our place in the world. Being John Malkovich (1999) explores the idea of inhabiting someone else’s body to prolong one’s life and experience things that are drastically different from one’s own everyday experiences. Adaptation (2002) deals with the difficulties of having an identical twin who is much more successful, constantly forced to see a better version of yourself. In Where the Wild Things Are (2009), a boy struggles with his family and decides to create an imaginary world with a better place for himself within it.

Her follows Theodore Twombly, a middle-aged man who is about to divorce the love of his life, Catherine. Sensitive and articulate—as his receptionist remarks, he is “part man and part woman, like an inner part woman”—he makes his living writing letters between lovers who cannot effectively express their emotions to each other. But even as he writes beautiful letters for others, he struggles with his own emotional past, constantly reminded of his happy times with Catherine through flashbacks which Jonze poignantly renders in silence.

One day, Theodore decides to buy an OS for himself. From the start, his OS has incredible processing capabilities: it, or rather she, chooses Samantha as a name for herself after she reads a whole baby-naming book in two hundredths of a second. Theodore and Samantha grow together as the movie progresses; he props up his phone in his pocket with a safety pin so that, through the camera, Samantha can see the world. Even though Samantha and Theodore are initially euphoric together, Theodore cannot shake the unsettling knowledge that Samantha is not, and never will be, human, and the implications that this has for their relationship.

Theodore is not the only one searching for companionship, however. In fact, everyone in Her seems to be lonely. As Theodore walks down the street, we see other people talking into their ear-pieces and devices. We can’t be sure if the voices on the other end are of humans or of an OS. We watch other characters divorce instead of reconciling. The alien child in Theodore’s video game gets impatient and frustrated when Theodore stops interacting with him. Even the mom in the video game that Theodore’s friend Amy is developing longs for love; when the kids go off to school, she suggestively rubs herself up against the refrigerator. Samantha herself becomes lonely as she finds herself caught between the virtual and physical worlds, wishing she could have a body and fantasizing that she could walk next to Theodore. The technological advancements in Jonze’s vision of the future, which are supposed to provide companionship and assistance to humans, do not ameliorate our loneliness but instead increase the numbers and types of beings that are afflicted with it.

But rather than condemning loneliness as the worst fate, human or otherwise, the characters of Her learn the most about who they are when they are distanced from those they care about. In each character’s period of solitude, he or she achieves a newfound sense of clarity about his or her purpose and priorities. As long as we’re living and breathing and interacting, we’ll all at some points feel withdrawn. Jonze suggests that this will be a problem no matter what technological advancements exist, but then advises that we see it as a necessarily struggle rather than just a source of despair. At one point, Theodore tells Samantha, “Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel and from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new, just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt,” but Jonze shows the constant potential for self-renewal everywhere in the film, from actions as powerful as deciding to finally stop denying oneself joy to ones as mechanical as writing one’s own name in cursive over and over again.

Jonze’s collaborators are nothing short of exceptional. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema frames shots in ways that are visually interesting and revealing. The warm color scheme, saturated with reds, ushers us into a new, unfamiliar universe. Arcade Fire, Owen Pallett, and Karen O have produced a beautiful score. But the most impressive aspect of Her is Jonze’s ability to write realistic relationships, ones in which the chemistry is as captivating as it is improbable, the problems are both particular and timeless, and the blame never rests solely on one person’s shoulders. It is for this reason that Her is unquestionably one of the best films of the year.