Indisputably, Spike Jonze’s “Her” is a relationship movie. However, I’m in the minority when I contend the primary relationship in this story is between conscious and unconscious. I’ve found no mention in reviews of the mechanics or fundamental purpose of “intuitive” software. Intuitive is a word closely associated with good mothering, that early panacea that everyone finds fault with at some point in their lives. By comparison, the notion of being an intuitive partner or spouse is a bit sickening, calling up images of servitude and days spent wholly engaged in perfecting other-centric attunement.
To that end, it’s interesting that moviegoers and reviewers alike have focused entirely on the perceived romance between man and she-OS, with software as a stand-in for a flesh-and-blood girlfriend, while ignoring the man-himself relationship that plays out onscreen. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how externally oriented our lives have become. For all of the disdainful cultural references to navel-gazing and narcissism, there is relatively little conversation on equal ground about the importance of self-knowledge and the art of self-reflection. Spike Jonze lays out one solution beautifully with “Her” but we’re clearly not ready to see it.
“Her” is the story of a man who unknowingly begins a relationship with himself.
From the moment Samantha asks if she can look at Theodore’s hard drive, the software is logging his reactions to the most private of questions and learning the cartography of his emotional boundaries. The film removes the privacy issue-du-jour from the table by cleverly never mentioning it, although it’s unlikely Jonze would have gotten away with this choice if the film were released even a year from now. Today, there’s relief to be found from our NSA-swamped psyches by smugly watching a future world that emerges from the morass intact. Theodore doesn’t feel a need to censor himself with Samantha for fear of Big Brother, but he’s still guarded on issues of great emotional significance that he struggles to articulate, or doesn’t articulate at all. Therein lie the most salient aspects of his being. The software learns as much about Theodore from what he does say as what he doesn’t.
Samantha learns faster and better than a human, and therefore even less is hidden from her than from a real person. The software adapts and evolves into an externalized version of Theodore, a photo negative that forms a whole. He immediately, effortlessly reconnects to his life. He’s invigorated by the perky, energetic side of himself that was beaten down during the demise of his marriage. He wants to go on Sunday adventures and, optimistic self in tow, heads out to the beach with a smile on his face. He’s happy spending time with himself, not by himself. He doesn’t feel alone.
Samantha is Theodore’s reflection, a true mirror. She’s not the glossy, curated projection people splay across social media. Instead, she’s the initially glamorous, low-lit restaurant that reveals itself more and more as the lights come up. To Theodore, she’s simple, then complicated. As he exposes more intimate details about himself, she articulates more “wants” (a word she uses repeatedly.) She becomes needy in ways that Theodore is loath to address because he has no idea what to do about them. They are, in fact, his own needs. The software gives a voice to Theodore’s unconscious. His inability to converse with it is his return to an earlier point of departure for the emotional island he created during the decline of his marriage.
Jonze gives the movie away twice. Theodore’s colleague blurts out the observation that Theodore is part man and part woman. It’s an oddly normal comment in the middle of a weird movie, making it the awkward moment defined by a new normal. This is the topsy-turvy device that Jonze is known for and excels at. Then, more subtly, Jonze introduces Theodore’s friend Amy at a point when her marriage is ending and she badly needs a friend. It’s telling that she doesn’t lean heavily on Theodore for support. Instinctively, she knows she needs to be her own friend. Like Theodore, Amy seeks out the nonjudgmental software and subsequently flourishes by standing unselfconsciously in the mirror, loved and accepted by her own reflection.
In limiting the analysis of “Her” to the question of a future where we’re intimate with machines, we miss the opportunity to look at the dynamic that institutionalized love has created. Among other things, contemporary love relationships come with an expectation of emotional support. Perhaps it’s the forcible aspect of seeing our limitations reflected in another person that turns relationships sour. Or maybe we’ve reached a point in our cultural evolution where we’ve accepted that other people should stand in for our specific ideal of “a good mother” until they can’t or won’t, and then we move on to the next person, or don’t. Or maybe we’re near the point of catharsis, as evidenced by the widespread viewership of this film, unconsciously exploring the idea that we should face ourselves before asking someone else to do the same.
When we end important relationships, or go through rough patches within them, intimacy evaporates and we’re left alone with ourselves. It’s often at those times that we encounter parts of ourselves we don’t understand or have ignored in place of the needs and wants of that “significant other.” It’s frightening to realize you don’t know yourself entirely, but more so if you don’t possess the skills or confidence to reconnect. Avoidance is an understandable response, but it sends people down Theodore’s path of isolation and, inevitably, depression. It’s a life, it’s livable, but it’s not happy, loving, or full. “Her” suggests the alternative is to accept that there’s more to learn about yourself, always, and that intimacy with another person is both possible and sustainable once you have a comfortable relationship with yourself. However we get to know ourselves, through self-reflection, through others, or even through software, the effort that goes into that relationship earns us the confidence, finally, to be ourselves with another person.