I was probably fifteen the first time I saw Her. I’d never heard of Spike Jonze, and I don’t think I’d known about the film for long, but it was the summer I started getting into movies and the idea of a ‘good film’ fascinated me.
The middle high school years felt difficult for me in what I now know was a similar way to everyone else. I was aware that my affinity for Drama and English didn’t make me unique in any great Heathcliff way – there were at least thirty more of those kids. On the holidays a friend of mine recommended a movie that I watched with relative apathy. It had been nominated for an Oscar that year and lost, and being the devil’s advocate I used to want to be, I checked out the winner. And then some of the other nominees. And then some winners and nominees from other years. And then the Google search suggestions for ‘people also searched’. Apart from the virus I accidentally downloaded onto my Mac, I gained a fascination with ‘good movies’ that summer. Maybe it was the film-bro YouTube analyses, or maybe it was the suggested searches. I think I’d just seen I’m Still Here and developed a brief crush on Joaquin Phoenix, devouring everything else he’d put his hands on. Or maybe that came after Her.
When people talk about Her they talk about Theodore Twombly, the unlucky in love protagonist who develops a relationship with his operating system, Samantha (a disembodied Scarlet Johansson in one of her most memorable roles). Twombly is a creep to a few and a loveable sweetie pie to many. But romance wasn’t really my bag. When I talked about Her, it was about the world.
From Blade Runner to The Handmaid’s Tale, visions of the future in media are depressingly glum – stark, serious, and didactic. But here was a world of wide spaces and close quarters, of muted fashion trends that reimagined old styles to evolve the hipster look. Her exists in a time and universe where letter writing is sufficient to survive on, and in a peaceful society at that. Is there a minimum income that allows Twombly to live this way, or is letter writing lucrative enough for his grandiose apartment in future L.A? The answer is both – or neither. Take your pick. Even watching now, Her doesn’t feel like a daggy, outdated view of tomorrow (Total Recall, Back to the Future II, Blade Runner). It isn’t a time-capsule: wow, they thought there’d be flying cars by now, huh! – we don’t even know the year in which the film takes place.
The beauty of Her – for me – was its implied feasibility. It didn’t forecast innovation in a way that will inevitably feel tacky later. The operating system is the speculative device and so the film only speculates here (with a few other minor deviations).
If I’d written a review, it would have read something like: Far from a typical romance, the relationship central to Her is only the backdrop of a far more interesting film – one that uses cinematography and production design to manufacture a homely vision of tomorrow.
When I was older, my relationship with movies became more intense. I started reading screenplays and searched my Scribd account for the scripts of my favourite movies; the ones I wanted to emulate. The first one I ever read all the way through was Her.
By 2021, I’d seen hundreds of other films and lurked in online film discussion spaces. It was not lost on me that men tended to become more attached to this movie. One of my favourite trends of late 2019 and early 2020 was the collective obsession with ‘best of the decade lists’ that popped up everywhere, particularly on film-bro pages. I mostly just found them funny, never taking them seriously. They were usually boring and at worst terrible. My friend and I would laugh at every 20-something man’s devotion to their favourite screen pairing: Ryan Gosling and neon lights. I never saw a list featuring a non-white, non-male director (very few even from outside the U.S.A.). The one female lead I recall was Kirsten Dunst in the depression-porn Melancholia. Everyone’s tastes are their own, and it’s only a bit of fun after all, but I felt myself being reminded of that summer I’d spent consuming all those movies. And featured on almost every list: Her.
It had been years and I could hardly remember the plot beats. I felt worried for a second – surely Her isn’t as bland, unimpressive, or even as terrible, as these other movies? I wondered: is Her all I remembered it to be?
After revisiting Her, my review has changed: An interesting idea imagined to life by the film’s production is squandered by uninteresting characters and contrived circumstances.
Hollywood’s consistent failure of its numerous female characters is well documented, and the most disappointing part of Her is its passive maintenance of this legacy. My memory of Her – and certainly how it exists in the collective consciousness – is of a film that subverts sexist tropes by removing the female body from the male gaze entirely (even if there is a scene featuring a woman who only serves as a sex surrogate for Theodore). But this didn’t stop contemporary reviews of the film to consistently reach for ‘sexy’ as the lead descriptor of Scarlett Johansson’s performance.
Theodore and Samantha’s relationship seems weighty but is in reality one-sided. There is an interesting power imbalance on both sides, but it doesn’t equal itself out – it just doubles. Both understand the world in a way that the other is incapable of understanding, to the point where Samantha’s infatuation with Theodore is dependent on his ability to make Samantha feel things, like her non-existent emotions and body (she even fantasises about being able to scratch her back). But there is no reason for him to be able to do this other than the fact he is the only (living) person she can talk to. Theodore doesn’t actually give Samantha anything other than proximity and forced engagement. The screenplay forces Samantha to give herself to Theodore but positions us to feel like Theodore is the only person able to do this. But she is in fact a machine learning algorithm programmed to meet whatever needs he may have. The other side of the imbalance is Samantha’s ability to know anything at any moment.
Theodore is goofy and dorky, a fact we are reminded of constantly, from his job – that surely will never exist – at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, to his insistence that men should cry. This shorthand language for ‘sensitive guy’ is laid on thick, and we come to understand he is ‘not like the other guys’.
The world’s constant mistreatment of Theodore has little to do with his own self. His ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and one-time blind date (Olivia Wilde) go out of their way to be facetious to Theodore, in ways that are unrealistic, unmotivated, and serve to entrench female character tropes (like Wilde’s demand for a commitment on the first date).
Most of our experience with Catherine is through Theodore’s recollection montages, and even when his narration of her is positive, she is shown in a negative light, subliminally forcing us to take Theodore’s side. This is another way in which the film forces us to feel sorry for ‘sensitive Theodore’, whose goofy sadness comes across as mostly comedic when the viewer considers how well his life is going; he’s fresh out of a bad relationship, he’s fantastic at his easy, made-up job, and he has a massive apartment in the middle of L.A. Theodore’s eventual conflict with Samantha is also poorly contrived. Samantha doesn’t respect Theodore’s concerns about inviting a surrogate into their sexual relationship, and when he feels uncomfortable Samantha becomes unreasonably upset and ignores him for a brief period.
The most compelling part of the film for me remains the world. Its vibrant colours and sleek design offer a vision of a future aided by automation and machines, but in the real world, the convenience of automation often contributes to wealth inequality. Little is known about this world, and maybe inequality has been defeated entirely, but one can’t help but feel as if this utopia is a particular brand of white gentrification – from its neighbourhoods to its Whole Foods stand in, to the fact that almost every primary, secondary, and tertiary character in L.A. is inexplicably white.
While the decision to not flesh out the world largely works for Her, the fairly uninteresting relationship arc makes one feel the premise is massively under-explored. A film examining the effects of advanced operating systems forming different kinds of relationships with people in different environments might have better explored this central idea.
Despite feeling a little disappointed with my re-watch, there were strongpoints to Her that I never noticed when I was younger. Samantha is a full character and unlike the boring, devoid of development, Theodore, she has a satisfying arc. Her sensations and ways of experiencing the world, and how they differ from Theodore’s, are hugely under-explored, but it is also the most fascinating and successful element of the screenplay. Her observations are fantastic, motivated, and stick out against the motionless Theodore, who fails to learn anything during the film’s two hours.
But he isn’t always an empty void for the male viewer to plug himself into. He is positioned in crowded spaces while talking to Samantha, showcasing how the future (and present) enhances connection with technology – a grateful reprieve from the tired sentimentality of the ‘phone bad!’ crowd. He also focuses on the emotions of his clients to avoid focussing on his own; a creative examination that unfortunately leads nowhere.
Ultimately, Her is a manipulative film that aims to deceive its viewers that there is something interesting about Theodore; that he is hard done by and deserving of your sympathy. Not only is this unsuccessful, but unnecessary. When the lead gets out of the film’s way, Her is striking, beautiful, and sentimental in ways other films fail to replicate. Beneath its moralistic unwinding is a valuable examination of interesting questions. I wish it was the film I remember it was; but I’m a sucker, and that’s the version I’ll remember anyway.
Tom is Brisbane-based writer and an editor at GLASS Magazine. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (Creative Writing) and is currently studying Communications (Journalism) at QUT.