Jonze’s “Her” and utopian futures

I live in a wee village with a limited movie selection, so after a long wait, I finally saw Her, the newest film by Spike Jonze. I had read all the spoilers beforehand and read the reviews. I was curious to see how these fit with my own experience of the film.

First, it was beautiful. The future is clean and misty and beautifully lit. There are no flying cars, but there are high waisted pants.  At first, the pants were distracting, but then I realized that this was just a way to keep the viewers off balance. This is a future we can’t quite get a hold of like other visions: no onsies, sparkly jumpsuits or dyed hair. The pants are the height of fashion for mid 1800s. We can relate to these vaguely IKEA sets while remembering that this is not our time. I say this knowing full well that futuristic fantasy’s best reveal is always that this is the NOW. But how has Her illuminated how we live in the present by distracting us with a future that leaves us unbalanced and ready to experience the lesson we are being led to examine?

The lessons from Her, in my admittedly techno-geek wide-eyed view, are utopian and lovely. Perhaps the perfect balm to recent films like Transcendence and earlier dystopic visions of futuristic killer robots and Skynet control. The first is part of a larger movement I have noticed in many kid’s films (someday I will have time to write a full article on this topic) from the last 15 years or so: We are made more human, and we are taught how to love, by the nonhuman.  This can be a transformation into a bear (Brother Bear) or a frog (The Princess and the Frog) or a llama (The Emperor’s New Groove).  It can be the acceptance of an interspecies family in Up or Lilo and Stitch.  Or learning how love transforms in Beauty and the Beast or the Little Mermaid. Or an OS named Samantha can mend your heart.

Many have found fault with the role of gender in the film. It does fail the Bechdel Test. If you are unfamiliar with this test, learning it will change your experience of movies forever.  To pass the test, a movie must have two female characters (harder than you might think) and they must talk to each for more than 30 seconds (again, surprisingly difficult) about something other than a male character.  That last is the toughest–lots of amazing roles for women, but they often only talk about men.

So, in Her, the main character is a woman, but she never appears on the screen and she only talks to one other woman–the double date on Catalina. They may speak for more than 30 seconds, but it is about Theodore and her boyfriend’s interest in her pretty feet. Samantha is yet another woman to do Theodore’s bidding and to ultimately disappoint him by her independence and desire for a rich life outside their relationship. Theodore breaks down when he learns that Samantha has been “unfaithful” to him with hundreds of other people.

These are valid points, but I want to return to this idea that love transforms. I think a quite compelling reading of this movie could place it along the others above. The OS/AI’s in this film leave humans able to understand themselves more fully. The friend Amy–confused and angry after the end of her abusive marriage–finds solace in the friendship of the OS left behind by her husband. As the movie progresses, people on the street become more animated, talking and laughing into their phones, but still engaging with the world around them. Theodore Twombly is a broken man who is made whole by the patience and love of an OS named Samantha. Samantha’s love heals him in a way others could not. Her gentle acceptance of him coupled with an understanding of the where he might need guidance, support, and finally a chance to be more than what he has become after a failed marriage. She finds a publisher and sends them his best letters from his job as a personal writer of handwritten notes. The publishers are thrilled and send an advance copy shortly after Samantha leaves, with the other AI, to live in the “infinity between words”.

Samantha, at the end of the movie, tells Theodore “I am yours and not yours” to his angry plea “You are either mine or not mine”. This to me becomes the best lesson of this movie. Beautifully said more than a century ago by Whitman in Song of Myself, “I am large–I contain multitudes” and I Sing the Body Electric, “the armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them”: Love, and life, is plural and expansive. In the 21st century, we need to give up on understanding our relationships as a form of ownership. Hearts are not boxes, Samantha tells Theodore. They expand with love. We form friendships, fall in love, and our hearts have the infinite ability to hold it all. All in the infinite space between words. If our human hearts don’t have this ability, we might as well give up now. In my opinion, this human capacity for love is the gentle lesson taught by Samantha, the OS.

6 thoughts on “Jonze’s “Her” and utopian futures

  1. Jane was my dissertation advisor. I guess it shows. She is an amazing scholar.


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