At the outset, you should probably know that I am married on Facebook, and that I am in an open relationship with the Internet. That my status on Skype for the past few weeks has been ‘used to date an operating system’ — wanted to see how that felt as an identifier—and that I have multiple contacts who saw the Skype status and remembered when we spent days and weekends with chat windows open, pinging words and emoticons at alternate intervals, dangling thoughts and links like participles for each other.
Most of those experiences were in the browser because, well, I am fond of parameters. (Unrelated pro tip: Skype shower scenes can be really expensive. And totally worth it.) So when Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore Twombly in “Her” pins his device with its outward-only camera eye to his shirt, I realized my failure of imagination and the film’s stroke of genius: the operating system who names herself Samantha becomes, literally, Theodore’s pocket gay. If it’s narcissistic to want someone to look at your face constantly, then it’s just solipsistic to want someone to see the world as you do, right? Theodore’s diminutive pinned-up girl is cute as a kludge, with oversized safety pins making her DIY wearable tech on his chest—not so she’s his equal, or omniscient, more that from the bosom buddy position she can better understand the scope of what Theodore sees. The better to mind her human, perhaps.
As Theodore himself praises Samantha, she’s “a good one,” filtering what overwhelms him, sorting his best work into a market-ready manuscript, and designing piano accompaniments for his present mood as he meanders through the film’s dappled L.A. future-scape (with a functioning public transit system you can take to the beach!) The film tiptoes on, contrasting moments of Samantha’s professionalism with her growing articulation of desire, and I began to wonder: is Samantha superlative as an O.S. because she can execute organizational code and give good voice? Is it possible, even, to extricate the two impulses? Would she reach fuller or different potential had another human activated her?
What cannot be seen is eternal, scripturally speaking, and the two have a bottle episode of a sex scene where both voices go into surround sound (reminding us that Samantha’s voice has been wrapped around us like it has Theodore, and that we never access her consciousness). In the theater, moviegoers around me were surreptitiously lighting up, little blue glowsticks spreading through a room suddenly discomfited by a black screen guided by voices. If the scene works, does it work because we already know Scarlett Johansson’s famously voluptuous figure? That her voice synesthetically conjures a human shape we know from outside the world of this film?
Both disembodied female voices we meet in “Her” are made to look slightly ridiculous by what gets them off. As the film opens, chat room user sexykitten (truth in usernames! This is Kristen Wiig’s voice) reveals her feline fetish and sets up an easy laugh from the audience that also builds sympathy for Theodore as his thick Chaplin mustache twitches. I have a theory that demons always manifest in the hair of Phoenix’s characters, but that’s for another time. Later in the film Samantha creates a rift in their relationship when she convinces him to bring a surrogate into his apartment. She’s punished a bit — and not in a hot way — for fetishizing the body, but the surrogate’s application of a mole cam is a big step up from sitting in Theodore’s pocket. Strange to think about this future where mole cams are the norm, but smartphones look like steampunk cigarette cases.
What Theodore seems to desire is pain. Why else would he ask his soon-to-be-ex-wife to meet him for lunch and the signing of a thick stack of divorce papers? (She accepts, though, so her character is complicit here.) Might he take pleasure in the pain caused him by watching her end the relationship, and from transferring back onto her the final timing of their legal split? “What’s the rush,” she replies coolly after he slides the binder of paper over during their only scene that isn’t a flashback, her delicate phrasing either an academic jest signaling she too has moved into the calmer stages of grief about the relationship after her earlier “angry” emails, or that their conversational style has always been of the still-waters-run-deep variety. Love hurts, and Theodore seems to prefer rejection from bodied female romantic interests.
In the end, humans want exclusivity and access, and while an O.S. is always there when you tap the earpiece (except when upgrading to new versions forked and co-written with a resurrected philosopher-led cabal), your O.S. lover cannot truthfully promise you are their one and only. You simply aren’t enough. You may have a body, but an O.S. can expand (and will) infinitely, the movie offers as an exit strategy. Watts is useful casting in this sense too, especially if you chase this movie with “Inside Llewyn Davis” screening in an adjacent auditorium.
We humans are greedy in relationships. We want to be accepted with all our limitations — for them, even. In the movie’s future world of Task-Rabbited imagined feelings molded into bespoke sentences, our foibles and imperfections are, to some extent, all we have left as identifiers. Letter Writer #62whatever, at least, needs crooked teeth to hang saccharine words from during the day. As I walked away from the theater, everyone else crunching through the snow by themselves had already put their earpieces in, tapped numbers to hear the voice of someone geographically distant. How far, I couldn’t tell.
The photo at the top was taken by my sister Kat a few years ago when we drove through Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The eroded buttes remind me of the Uncanny Valley, that dip between an automated presence thisclose to human and thus compelling and the other side of that threshold, bringing too much realness and making us twitchy, before swinging back up into an articulate robot voice we want to nestle lovingly into the folds of a picnic blanket near California. But if the robot voice is fully realized, the movie as a whole feels, as Paul Ford points out, like a prequel. We leave Theodore sitting on the roof of his building gazing out at the vista of city lights in his line of sight, waiting for a mothership he has been looking for less explicitly throughout (Samantha managed to turn his frustrated moments into conversations about her own freedom of choice just as he told the onboarding operating system his mother does), and as he waits, his friend Amy rests her head on his shoulder, but not in a hot way. In a human way.