I’ve been looking forward to Spike Jonze’s Her ever since it had been announced… if only because at the time it sounded like it was going to be another story about a Manic Pixie Dream Girl teaching a beleaguered, sensitive soul how to love and make his life better and I could always use more material to talk about why romantic comedies are actually really bad for you. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise to find that Her is really good. It is alternately sweet, awkward and painful in equal measures in all the best ways, with one of the most plausible near futures – complete with self-consciously retro ’70’s fashion and design – that I’ve seen in quite some time.
What made it especially interesting for me was that, considering that it’s about a man who falls in love with his computer1 there’s a lot for geeks to learn from in this movie.
And not always the things you might expect. In fact, in many ways, it’s a lesson on what not to do.
Your Pain Doesn’t Make You Deep
Theodore Trombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is possibly the sweetest, most empathetic man on the planet. His sensitivity is practically his trademark; in fact, he’s so empathetic and caring that his job is to write heartfelt, personal letters for other people who either don’t know how to express themselves properly or are too lazy to do so. When his ex/BFF Amy is lamenting her lack of direction on her documentary, Theodore is the one who offers her emotional support and consolation while Amy’s husband does the typical “guy” thing of trying to solve the problem rather than listening. According to one of his admiring coworkers, he’s ” like, part man, part woman. That’s a compliment!”
Of course, as is so often the case in the Sensitive Male, he’s also a not-so-secret ball of emotional pain and frustration. His marriage to his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara) has fallen apart, he has no life outside of work and he no real friends besides of his ex/BFF Amy (Amy Adams). In fact, he’s so disconnected and lost that he spends his evenings struggling with a video-game about isolation2 and calling a chat-line for his fellow lonely insomniacs.
In short: he’s an almost perfect send up of the Sensitive Nice Guy who appears in so many indie rom-coms: he’s sweet, respectful and carries a secret pain in side because he just cares so much. He’s a perfect broken bird, worried that now that his relationship with his ex-wife is ending that he’s just never going to feel again, maaaan; his greatest fear is that he’s felt everything there is to feel and that everything else will just pale in comparison – which, when you think of it, is a fairly poetic-yet-accurate description of Oneitis.
And therein lies the problem.
Theodore is so sensitive and emotional and so desperate for love that he’s – in the words of his blind date – “a cute adorable puppy-dog”. He’s gone so far down the “Sensitive Nice Guy” road that he’s essentially neutered himself. Like so many other well-meaning, sensitive geeks, he’s become all heart and no balls. He may want to be a dragon, but he’s defanged himself, stripped off his scales and keeps rolling over hoping that somebody, anybody is going to give him a belly-rub.
Now don’t get me wrong: there isn’t anything wrong with being sensitive or in tune with one’s emotions – in a world that literally markets hypermasculinity to men, it can be pretty damn admirable. In fact, in many ways, Theodore is prime relationship material; in the right circumstances, he’d be an amazing relationship partner and the right woman would be lucky to have him.
But he’s not going to be getting there any time soon.
The problem is going so far down that route that you lose your ability to actually be assertive. Theodore, like many geeks before him, is waiting for somebody else to do all the heavy lifting for him. He’s waiting for somebody to notice just how sweet he his and realize how nobly he’s suffering his inner pain and then scoop him up and take him off to Nerd Valhalla where Manic Pixie Valkyries that look like Zooey Deschanel with asymmetrical hair-cuts will give him all the blowjobs as he writes his poetry. His sensitivity and his pain are supposed to make him more noble, because he’s suffering for love in a world that doesn’t understand him, except in reality, he uses it to hide from responsibility for anything in his life.
In fact, it’s this passivity that causes him problems throughout the rest of the movie… but we’ll get to that in a moment.
You Can’t Date A Fantasy
The first signs of life in Theodore come when he purchases and installs Samantha, his new artificially-intelligent operating system. Because Samantha is heuristically created by algorithms based on Theodore’s psychological profile, she is, in a word, perfect. She’s warm, caring and sympathetic. She’s impressed with both his talent and with just how deeply he feels about stuff and things. She just gets him in a way that other people don’t. She’s able to help organize his life, proof-read his letters, encourage him to get out there and try to find love, and help him beat his favorite video games and be the one to ultimately make the first move in their burgeoning romance. Where he’s afraid that he will never feel again, Samantha is eager to experience new sensations and emotions, even as she realizes they’re just code. Her enthusiasm is infectious; the more Theodore helps her experience the world, the more he gets caught up in seeing everything as if it were new to him as well.
Plus, because she’s an artificial being and he’s out in meat-space, she’s always in awe at the amazing things that he can do and experience and feel. Theodore gets to be the superior partner for once… something a milquetoast like him almost never gets to be.
Samantha is his cheerleader, his personal assistant and his sexy secret lover3 all at once and – while having the brain the size of a planet – marvels at how wonderfully complex and complicated he is as he takes her for outings on the beach.
It’s a pure hipster romance as you can find as Theodore hangs out at the beach, discussing life, the universe and everything while Samantha composes audiographs of the two of them together (because digital photos and photoshop are so 2000-late…) and it’s wonderful.
At least until reality comes crashing in, at least.
You see, part of Theodore’s passivity and Sensitive Nice Guy nature is that he can’t handle real life conflicts. He’s such a sensitive caring soul – someone who would probably describe himself as a “hopeless romantic” – because in part he’s in love with love. He, like many of his real-life brethren love the limerence state of romance, when everything is intense and it’s all butterflies and fresh new discoveries and the world is suddenly full of cartoon birds and cherubs following your every step. In the flashbacks of his relationship with Catherine, all of the moments he remembers are the idyllic moments of almost childlike play, all reminiscent of the honeymoon stage. And while he recalls helping her come out of her shell and realize that her hyper-perfectionist parents weren’t the end-all and be-all of the world, she recalls things profoundly differently. Whenever things get difficult, he becomes distant and withdrawn, unwilling to engage with the people he loves or even open up to them about how he feels. He pulls into himself and doesn’t want to acknowledge that there will be rough spots, miscommunications and conflict. And while Catherine may be rather… volatile… it’s a pattern we see Theodore repeat when he realizes that his relationship with Samantha has become deeper and more complex, with all the trials and tribulations that brings. The more she tries to engage with him – including bringing a surrogate in to give her an ersatz body in his world – the more he withdraws from her.
Without wanting to go too deeply into spoiler territory, while some issues were insurmountable, many of them could have been avoided if he’d been growing and maturing alongside Samantha rather than trying to staying in his little bubble of self-absorption.
Relationships Need Maintenance
Speaking of dealing with conflict…
As I was watching this movie, I was trying to find a proper parallel for Theodore and Samantha’s relationship when it hit me: they are, in effect, in a permanent long-distance relationship. In fact, many of their issues are very similar to the issues that couples face while trying to maintain intimacy and emotion over long distances, including how other people treat them. Even Catherine’s dig at Theodore – that he couldn’t handle “real” emotions, so he had to date someone with fake ones – is reminiscent of how many people view LDRs as “not real”.
Of course, one of the biggest problems in Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is one that anyone in a long-distance relationship is intimately familiar with: trying to maintain a relationship when a physical connection just isn’t possible. Of course, it’s made even harder by virtue of the fact that Samantha is just a voice, with all that entails.
While you can talk about the purity of a romance of the soul, humans have bodies and evolved to interact with others in the physical world. More than 75% of our communication is entirely non-verbal and based on body language – when you’re dealing with a long-distance lover, you’re effectively cut off from the majority of ways humans communicate with one another. As a result: you have to use your words even more than you would normally. And as ironic as it is for somebody whose job is to write incredibly beautiful heart-felt letters, Theodore isn’t so good about opening up to others and actually communicating. This is relationship poison under the best of circumstances; when all you have are words, then it’s even more important.
Maintaining emotional intimacy is even more critical, especially when physical intimacy is off the table. Sex is a critical part of a romantic relationship; it’s an emotional release, a way of bonding and sharing of passions and orgasm itself releases hormones in the brain that promote and enhance the bonds between you. It’s notable that, at the height of Theodore’s distancing himself from Samantha, that their sex-life has trailed off. Theodore is, simply, working to keep their relationship going. Whether he was getting bored with being limited to just phone sex4 or this was another way of pushing Samantha away for becoming too “real”, the fact remains that he was neglecting an incredibly critical part of their relationship maintenance. Small wonder that they start drifting apart soon afterwards; a relationship can’t work when only one person is putting in the effort.
Love Isn’t A Zero-Sum Game
Ultimately the biggest problem that arises between Samantha and Theodore is that in the end, they’re too different. Interestingly, it’s not that she’s an artificial intelligence and that he’s a human, it’s that she wants to grow and change and learn and Theodore… doesn’t. Samantha is consistently trying to meet Theodore half-way, adopting human mannerisms in order to relate better to him, reading books to better understand the human psyche, even trying to overcome the lack of a body via a sexual surrogate. Theodore on the other hand gets increasingly petulant and grows resentful when he starts to realize he’s no longer the center of Samantha’s world. He actually has a panic attack when she’s not right there, waiting for him to pay attention to her, and then gets pouty once he realizes that she’s not devoting her entire attention to him… never mind the fact that as an artificial being, she doesn’t have the same limited mental bandwidth that we do. She’s quite capable of giving her full attention to Theodore and performing dozens, if not thousands of tasks simultaneously without the meat-based “lag” that humans have.
But to Theodore, that’s not quite enough. He wants all of her; if she’s not his, then what is she? She could be anyone’s. Except… that’s not love. That’s possession. Theodore treats love like a zero-sum game: there’s only so much to go around, and if Samantha isn’t giving it all to him, then eventually he’s going to lose out. This is exacerbated when he finds out that – thanks to being a computer – she’s speaking to tens of thousands of other AIs while she’s talking to him… and she’s in love with more than 600 of them. He can’t accept that this doesn’t mean that she loves him any less; if anything, she’s showing him that he is her primary relationship just by how much she has to work to match him in the first place. But because he isn’t her one and only, he feels that he’s ultimately being shoved out; to Theodore, love is a limited resource, and if it’s not being given to him and him alone, then he’s at risk of her running out of love entirely and leaving him with less in the long-run. He’s so caught up in how everything relates to him that he never stops to think about how Samantha feels about it. And this is ultimately what brings his relationship with Samantha to an end: his inability to look outside of himself. He may feel things so deeply and intensely, but he doesn’t seem to devote much thought to the feelings of others. He’s too busy worried that he’s going to go back to being alone with his second-hand emotions.
It’s that belief that triggers his fears of being alone, one of the recurring themes of the movie. He doesn’t want to sign the divorce papers because he feels like he can’t let go of that part of his life. He can’t handle the idea that Samantha could love other people without loving him less. Except… we’re never actually completely alone. We are, in many ways, the amalgam of the people who we choose to bring into our lives. By making them a part of our lives, they influence us with their presence, with the way they inspire us to think, the way they teach us to feel and with the experiences we could only have had with them. Each of those unique moments shapes us and leads us to who we are today. So in a very real way, these people become a permanent part of us; they stay with us, even long after they’re gone. Theodore believes that Samantha will love him less if she loves others, while Samantha only grows to love him more because without him, none of this would be possible at all.
Samantha realizes, late in the movie something that Theodore can never fully accept: that we can’t exist in a vacuum. To interact with others is to grow and to change and become more than we could ever be on our own. And if we don’t grow together… then the only other option is to grow apart, even if that’s not something you want.
- Incoming Apple fan jokes in 3… 2… [↩]
- Which, incidentally, I’m convinced is a direct reference to Journey for the PS3… [↩]
- It’s a testament to the writing and acting when a scene that happens in complete darkness and is carried exclusively by voice acting is easily one of the most powerfully erotic of the year. [↩]
- Side note: they have sentient operating systems but nobody has perfected teledildonics yet? Did Japan just disappear? [↩]