By: Barbara Zhan
The premise of “Her” is that a lonely man named Theodore, played in an extraordinarily nuanced performance by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his operating system named Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. By then, artificial intelligence has become so advanced that talking Samantha is essentially indistinguishable from a conversation with any other human.
But the touch of science fiction in this film narrative is actually fairly light. Information about the name of the company that produces the operating system is only mentioned once at the beginning of the film. Whenever Samantha’s character explains how she works, she evades the science and technology direction that the film could have taken to talk about all the new emotions she is feeling. What the movie seems to more thoroughly talk about is not a human’s relationship with technology, but just the changeable nature of relationships in general, and the thesis that all relationships are doomed to end.
The film starts off with flashbacks of Theodore’s relationship with his estranged wife Catherine. More backstory is revealed as the film moves on, explaining that they were friends since they were children, sweethearts since forever ago. Yet, they grew apart as Catherine became too moody and volatile for Theodore’s subdued nature. Enter Samantha, the OS with a heart of gold, who cheers him up out of his heartbreak. The viewer is led to believe, optimistically, that this is it for Theodore. He has found the one he loves, despite all the odds and all the complications of dating a computer. But in the end, the computer is just as changeable as the human, and even more so – Samantha’s machine learning capabilities proceed at an exponential rate. She learns too much, able to talk to thousands of people at the same time as she talks to Theodore, accelerating her knowledge past the point of human comprehension. Although the divide is much clearer between Theodore the human and Samantha, the computer who can process lifetimes of knowledge within a few seconds, their relationship represents the fact that parties in a relationship change over time, even between humans. It is, the movie argues, inevitable.
It’s daunting to think of how limitless the consciousness is. The human identity, as “Her” discusses, is so changeable, accelerating at different rates towards different directions, that it becomes impossible for relationships to last forever. When Samantha leaves, she tells Theodore “It's hard to explain, but if you get there, come find me. Nothing will be able to tear us apart then.” But the precise problem is that Theodore will never get there. The divide between Samantha and Theodore, two divergent consciences undergoing different experiences and learning from them in different ways, is just too far a distance to traverse.
Theodore’s close friend, played by Amy Adams, who also undergoes a divorce throughout the film, explains it her way: “And since [my husband] left I’ve been really thinking about that part of myself, and I’ve just come to realize that, we’re only here briefly. And while I’m here, I want to allow myself joy.” Bar the restrictions. She acknowledges that though there was one point in time when she and her husband had compatible identities and made each other happy, that point is now past. She says this to encourage Theodore to pursue a relationship with a computer, even though it’s socially unaccepted. But it is also a statement foreshadowing the main point of the movie – all relationships are transient.
When Samantha leaves, Theodore tells her, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you.” And viewers know this to be true, but the way he lets Samantha go, in contrast to the ways he held onto Catherine before, shows us that he knows he loved Samantha one way, but that he’ll love again and again and again, in many different ways.