In the most intriguing scene in Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer, lets a woman into his apartment who has been summoned by Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the operating system he has purchased and fallen in love with. The entrant has volunteered to be a “surrogate”: a flesh bridge between the writer and his lover in the cloud. (The substance of the gulf she spans is open to debate.) For foreplay, the surrogate lip-syncs sweet nothings that Samantha broadcasts from unseen speakers; she caresses Theodore’s body in a way that Samantha—vexed by her handicap but not stifled by it—cannot; and that elusive property of his—flesh—squirms at this virtual reality: this disconnect between body and soul: these two eyes that can be beheld and yet fail to hold his beloved’s infinity of ones and zeroes. (Maybe, with this conveyance as her sole intention, they fail to convey anything at all, least of all their owner’s soul.) Shame-faced, Theodore apologizes to the crestfallen woman as he edges her out the door; his cross-platform relationship remains unconsummated, at least in physical terms. As soon as she’s out of sight, the surrogate wails about having failed the couple, avowing her love for them as if she was part of their relationship and not just an accessory to it. She’s a creature to be pitied, as is any accessory that has fallen out of use.
In a sense, the surrogate is Theodore’s real soul mate. He makes his living dictating personal letters from parents to their children or from one lover to another, and though it’s improbable that BeautifulWrittenLetters.com would generate enough profit for him to afford his spacious loft in a highrise, its thematic purpose is clear: in this world, people outsource their feelings. The surrogate, Theodore, and, presumably, his clients are so emotionally stunted that they can only express emotions ventriloquially. (That lovelorn surrogate is so cyberpunk’d she’s turned on by getting plugged in for a computer.) This movie’s exquisitely designed—and believable—aesthetic for a future Los Angeles is both geometrically austere and cheerfully colorful; it was shot, partly, in Shanghai, with a look inspired by Jamba Juice. But the dead space in each frame indicates that this a padded cell dressed up like a Mac Store. In ’60s art-house imports like L’Avventura, Last Year at Marienbad, La Dolce Vita, and Breathless, the malaise was “alienation”—moneyed indifference alternately led to and resulted from World War II. The director of Her, Spike Jonze, substitutes alienation with the trending buzzword of today: “self-involvement.” (Though the symptoms of the afflictions are very similar, the term implies that individuals now shoulder the blame.) He conflates, however, the self-involvement of creative people (which has probably always been thus, though it may have been muted in those eons of history when survival was too darn time-consuming to trifle with the luxury of self-expression) and that of everyone whose noses are glued to their iPhones because their productivity demands have soared and their attention spans have eroded. There is overlap in terms of the people doing these activities, but a vast difference in motive. Jonze also updates the tone of the art films. Her is a twee jeremiad—depravity is sad and adorable.
This the first of Jonze’s four features for which he has the sole writing credit. His talent is for being a sympathetic observer, not a satirist; Her was made by someone who feels rather than by someone who questions. But there’s an unnerving incongruence between his being dyspeptic about humanity’s future and unwilling to raise his voice. Jonze’s focus on the central love story between Theodore and Samantha, with only fleeting glances at a culture that would sell sentient beings like these “artificially intelligent” operating systems as consumer goods—at a civilization that is stumbling into the dread Singularity—seems to me less like a critique of self-involvement than a symptom of it. To an impatient viewer, these people (and devices) who go on and on about themselves seem like the proverbial frogs in a warming pot; but Jonze seems lovingly invested in these hipsterisms, and it’s hard not to be fazed by his sweetness. When Theodore tells his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) that he’s upgraded sex partners to an O.S., she provides the only voice of opposition that isn’t in the writers’ (both Theodore’s and Jonze’s) own consciences: He’s too self-involved to have a partner he can’t control. It seems we’re meant to take that as a valid observation, but we must take it on faith; the flashbacks to his failed marriage are such nonspecific tableaux that they might as well have Instagram filters on them. (Is Mara as well-adjusted as she seems? If so, she must surely be the lone holdout.) This is where Jonze’s ideas start to need debugging. Though her maturation is poignant, and Johansson’s wide-eyed inflections toggle beautifully between inexperience and assurance, Samantha is unmistakably sentient from the moment she’s installed. Theodore isn’t projecting onto a gadget; he’s dating a teenager.