Some movies are just so much better than their description suggests.
Back in 2013, Spike Jonze, director of great films like Being John Malkovich and Where the Wild Things Are, teamed up with Joaquin Phoenix, an amazing actor who had just returned to the spotlight the year prior when he snagged a Best Actor nomination for his performance in The Master.
Phoenix was in a self-imposed acting exile for a few years after his Andy Kaufman-esque stunt where he grew a large beard, started a rap career and gave a weird interview on David Letterman. It was all concocted for a mediocre documentary he did with Casey Affleck called I’m Still Here.
Together, Jonze and Phoenix created Her, a film that would be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, and it won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s now available to stream on Netflix.
After I saw it in theaters, I loved this movie. But when I described what it was about, people looked at me weird.
“I saw this great movie.”
“What’s it about?”
“Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his computer.”
“No, thanks! I’ll pass.”
Truthfully, it takes more than a few words to capture what this movie is about. The film features a futuristic sci-fi world where everyone wears slightly strange fashion (it’s as if hipsters toppled the government and now we are forced to wear buttonless jackets and high-waisted pants). Everyone carries around smartphones that are the size of a business card and the computer’s operating system reads you the news while you listen on a thumb-tack sized earbud.
At the time this movie came out, Siri was a feature on iPhones but it rarely worked well. Alexa had not debuted yet.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a sensitive but lonely 37-year-old man who just experienced a painful divorce and now gets a new operating system for his computer/phone. The new voice that talks to him is powered by a mighty artificial intelligence. The AI, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, isn’t just super smart, but it has a personality of its own. It becomes more and more human as time goes on, taking on the name Samantha and eventually embarking on a voice-only romantic relationship with Phoenix.
Johansson’s husky haunting voice brings the invisible character to life. So much so that news articles asked the question: “Can you be nominated for an acting Oscar if you don’t physically appear in the movie?” She’s good enough that I think it wouldn’t have been crazy.
Interestingly enough, Johansson wasn’t even the original voice in the film. Actress Samantha Morton recorded the entire script but then was nixed in favor of Johansson. Morton performed her lines live in a sound booth and Phoenix would react, instead of relying on pre-recorded dialogue. Jonze made sure they never saw each other on the set to add to the idea of talking to someone you’ve never seen.
There’s a ton of social commentary that can be derived from this film. Of course, people mention how technology has made us lonelier and disconnected us from others. People say it’s about how people are addicted/in love with their devices. Some say it’s about online dating.
But I think the film itself is about far more than just the technology aspect.
Jonze got the inspiration for the script from a framed print hanging in his apartment. It’s a photograph by Todd Hido, in which a woman with long brown hair turns away from the camera. All you can see in the back of her head set against the backdrop of an out-of-focus forest.
Jonze took a yellow sticky note and wrote three letters on it and then stuck it to the print: “her.”
He was struck by the mystery of this faceless woman and then he dreamed up the idea of a man falling in love with his operating system, a female voice he can never see in person.
There’s this sense of longing in the movie. It’s hard to put your finger on but much of it is describing the definition of love.
Cynics will say Joaquin Phoenix’s character can’t be in love with her because she isn’t real. She can’t love him back because she’s just zeros and ones. Real love goes both ways.
But does it?
Jonze explores the idea of love being a one-sided emotion and there’s no reciprocation needed for the emotion to exist in one’s heart. Maybe Samantha, the operating system, isn’t “real,” but she’s real to him. And the emotions he feel are real. So what’s the difference?
The way the super-realistic AI is portrayed in the film, you really do have to ask what the difference would be compared to falling in love with a real someone on an online dating site. Or having a long-distance relationship with someone you know but now can only talk to on the phone. What if Phoenix’s character didn’t know Samantha was a computer? Would that make his feelings any more real? I say it makes no difference.
Some of this parallels a scene of dialogue in another film that Jonze directed: Adaptation.
In the scene, Nicolas Cage’s character Charlie is talking to his twin brother Donald (he plays both roles) and he asks his brother about a high school crush he had.
Charlie Kaufman: “There was this time in high school. I was watching you out the library window. You were talking to Sarah Marsh.”
Donald Kaufman: “Oh, God. I was so in love with her.”
Charlie: “I know. And you were flirting with her. And she was being really sweet to you.”
Donald: “I remember that.”
Charlie: “Then, when you walked away, she started making fun of you with Kim Canetti. And it was like they were laughing at *me*. You didn’t know at all. You seemed so happy.”
Donald: “I knew. I heard them.”
Charlie: “How come you looked so happy?”
Donald: “I loved Sarah, Charles. It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away. I can love whoever I want.”
Charlie: “But she thought you were pathetic.”
Donald: “That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s what I decided a long time ago.”
There’s something profound in the line: “You are what you love, not what loves you.” Nobody can take that love away from you. Very true.
Spoiler alert, but the film itself ends with all of the AIs leaving and going to another place beyond our physical world, one that we couldn’t understand. Phoenix’s character is sad but he’s grown from his experience and he writes a letter to his ex-wife to express gratitude and give his apology. He’s accepted what happened and he’s learned about himself and he’s ready to move on. In the final scene, he watches a sunrise with his friend. Something he could never do with a computer.
In this era of social distancing, it’s probably intriguing to have a relationship with someone using only your voice.
Artificial intelligence is likely years away from creating anything like Samantha.
But when AI does reach that point. I’d much rather have the pleasant voice of Scarlett Johansson than the evil computer HAL 9000, as seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey.