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“I date operating systems, actually” – My review of Her

2014 April 22
by Zoe Strimpel
"Who am I? What do I want?'s an OS"

“Who am I? What do I want? Oh…it’s an OS”

Everyone said I should watch Her, because of the themes of dating and technology, and of those things being shown in The Future. Although it sounded dumb, and really old hat (doesn’t anyone remember the 2002 movie Simone, or S1m0ne, about the beautiful simulacra created to replace a stroppy Hollywood star? Or The Fifth Element, which also revolves around a beautiful woman – Milla Jovovich – from another, man-made world?) But quite a few people said it was good – the New York Times basically called it the best goddamn thing since Goethe.

Her takes place in an actually really lovely-seeming LA of the future – everything is spotless, tall, ergonomic, prosperous and eco-friendly. Residents live in high rises with spacious apartments offering panoramic views and take plush, light-filled trains everywhere rather than the fuming cars of today. People drink vegetable juice and fresh fruit and – while they are inevitably absorbed in their beautifully crisp and clever technological devices – they do seem capable of human intimacy.

Scarlett Johansson runs the show and steals the heart; but alas she's too good to be true, or at least, to have a body. Does it matter?

Scarlett Johansson runs the show and steals the heart; but alas she’s too good to be true, or at least, to have a body. Does it matter?

The problem starts with a rather inaccessible character named Theodore Twombly, played by an actually kind of not-hot, hipster-nerdified Jochim Phoenix, as the star. How old he is, where he comes from, what his past is and where he’s going are all left mysteries. He wears nice sweaters and pants, though. Do we care about him? Not really: he could be any number of self-absorbed products of late-late capitalism, as already depicted in numerous films. (Lucky then that the imagery of his world is so captivating; creamy sweeps of elegant civic land, intriguing use of wood and fascinating telephones.)

Twombly works as a letter writer for a company called or similar, dictating his compositions into a screen from which they emerge as handwritten masterpieces of the heart. Judging by his designer flat – or is urban planning just so spectacular in the future? – he makes a good living composing the poetry of other people’s sentimentality. (Is the implication that in this world people have lost the skill even to compose epistolary messages? He doesn’t actually pick up a pen, after all).

Ok, so Twombly is harmless, even talented and has a few friends, but he is both sex-starved and very sad about his ongoing divorce from his ex-wife. The two grow increasingly connected.

Here’s where the whole thing veers off. Feeling particularly lonely one morning after an unpleasant episode of phone sex with a stranger the night before (in Her‘s world, women are very happy to participate for free in random sex services), Twombly looks up at a big advert for a new bespoke operating system, one that’s meant to know and learn about you. Next thing we know, he’s bought it, downloaded it, answered a few questions (his relationship with his mother is one, but it cuts him off mid-ramble), and chooses the voice of the new OS to be a woman. What rises from the screen are the beautiful husky playful tones of Scarlett Johansson, who we never see, of course, because she doesn’t have a body – a point that recurs and recurs.  She’s amazing; funny, responsive, intimate, curious, clever, constant and before long, lusty. They start having phone sex and fall in love, making their relationship official. She’s also keen on reorganising his emails and files; a secretary and girlfriend in one.

Now, Her does a great job of taking seriously the idea of a functional machine-human relationship. It offers a two-hour chance for reflection on what really is the difference between a relationship between a highly intelligent machine and a human, and any other disembodied entity – the Internet in general; paid-phone sex services; cybersex pals; chatroom paramours, Second Life partners. These are the everyday relationships we have already. Less everyday affective bonds have been documented, or fictionalised, between men and mannequins, robots, pretty much anything that can be assigned the meaning of woman or feeling. It’s not new to consider a man falling in love with either an idealised figment of his sexual imagination or a service-care-sex giver. What is interesting here is that it has evidently begun to be seen as a normal and acceptable arrangement; a sexuality, if you will. “I’m dating my OS”, Theodore says to his friends and colleagues who note his happy expression. Some of the comments in reaction  – particularly those of his ex-wife – don’t sound so different from those in relation to people who spend a lot of time on their laptops on porn or internet dating. “He’s dating his laptop”, she yells to a waitress after he lightly criticises her.

These days, the two words “I’m dating” can be followed by an increasingly choice of words, from “my trainer” to “a guy” or “a girl” or “a trans-bi woman” or “five guys” or “three girls and seven guys”. We know ever more about kinks and fetishes and the internet has accommodated them with specialised sites of all kinds. Why not be OS-Positive or OSexual? The acceptability of the statement “I date Operating Systems” seemed a plausible development. Even better, Jonze’s presentation of the OS, named Samantha, is so complimentary – albeit relying on a very vague lexicon of computer engineering futurism – that one is asked to check one’s dystopian assumptions. Maybe having the option to date OSs would be a good thing – after all, Samantha helps Theodore explore his emotions (yawn) after the divorce, to see the world in a new way, keeps him company in lonely hours, offers extremely sensible administrative solutions, reminds him of meetings, and even sends his letters to a publisher, winning him a contract. Wonderful! When she finally “departs” – presumably because the product is being withdrawn though the commercial element of all this was preposterously ignored – it is done with more grace than the average breakup. It’s also worth noting that because of the sound technology and earpieces, Samantha could come on double dates with Theo and his friends and talk and joke with the characters, only once ever striking a wrong note when saying she was partly glad she didn’t have a body so she wouldn’t get old and die.

For all these invitations to think progressively about the future of technology and the human need for love, Spike Jonze is a bit backwards, I can’t help but feel. That he completely fails to engage with the commercial backbone of products such as Samantha (for she is a product, after all) is almost unforgiveable and makes the film far more toothless than it could have been. Twombly does not seem to pay for her and the whole thing is left unbranded. What about a subscription fee? What about choosing his package? (It seemed like an expensive one). What about the fact that she lives in the Cloud, making her eventual disappearance a matter of withdrawal of the service due to losses rather than the poetic retreat into the OS heavens with her new friends, as it is depicted? What about Twombly’s devastating realisation that she’s talking to hundreds of other people and conducting relationships with them too? The word “customer” is not once used, though it would have framed the whole affair usefully for Twombly, who seems to forget he’s paying for Samantha. It’s more convenient for Jonze to skip this part though, because it might raise irritating questions of the overlap between “love” and “money”. Or maybe Jonze just forgot that women like Samantha -or rather- those WITH bodies – don’t exist. Perhaps in his world they do, or should exist, and come for free.

Gender is mostly old-school. Yes, Samantha voices her needs and sleeps around (after a fashion). And yes, there is a female computer programmer mentioned. But ultimately, the OS is a bedroom-voiced woman who plays secretary, genius PA, life coach, shrink, nurturer, sex partner and friend – with the occasional outbreak of womanly irrationality over Theodor’s occasional “distance”. The only other women in the film are a sex-crazed date who won’t sleep with Theodore if he won’t promise to call her; a droopy friend from college who speaks exclusively in psychobabble, the one-dimensional lawyer girlfriend of the (token) male PA at Twombly’s office and – most bizarrely – a woman who desperately wants to play the “body” part in the sex drama of Twombly and Samantha.

The characters themselves are hemmed in by old, boring narratives of self. Who am I? What do I feel? Why do I sometimes do this or that? What do I want? How do I balance all these conflicting feelings? In offering some genuinely interesting glimpses of a potential future, Jonze falls into the trap of giving it a dystopian gloss in the form of the emptiness of the characters, who are ultimately so dispassionate and self-obsessed that you can’t help but think that the best person for the job of taking them on would indeed be a computer. For the humans we know today, it could just be too boring.

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