Her (2013) is another one of those movies I meant to see in the theaters when it premiered, but never made it. Looking back eight years on and 2013 was an interesting year. It did not start well. I had my heart broken in a crushing fashion, and I spent a long time mourning my loss. At the same time, I finished my dissertation and graduated with my Doctorate in American History from Loyola University Chicago. After that, it was time to bid my Windy City home goodbye and return to the Land of Sunshine. I started teaching for one of my alma maters, the University of South Florida – St. Petersburg, that summer, a position I was able to hold on to for the next five years. I also continued lifeguarding, though I only kept doing that until the beginning of the following summer. In my Faith life, I officially joined St. John Vianney parish in beautiful St. Pete Beach, Florida, a move that was to put me on a path of Spiritual growth that arguably led me to writing this review. Why am I giving a partial accounting of a year in my life? Because it fits thematically with what you see in Her.
Like most adults, Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) has a job, which we get to see right away in Her. He works as a professional letter writer, which is apparently a viable source of employment in the unspecified not too distant future. He is also terribly lonely. When he goes home at night, he is haunted by the memory of his ex-wife Catherine Klausen (Rooney Mara). In desperation, he indulges in sexual fantasies to fill the quiet moments when he cannot sleep. The less said about this the better. In the following days, there appears a new technology, known as Operating System 1 (OS-1), billed as an artificial intelligence with a real consciousness. Theodore purchases one, loads it onto his personal computer, answers a few questions about his life, and then OS-1 (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) begins speaking. It sounds and has all the characteristics of a real person, sans body, so much so that he feels it needs a name. After doing some lightning-fast research, she comes up with the name Samantha. She essentially fills the role of a personal assistant, but one that continues to learn at an exponential rate and gets better at anticipating his needs. One of the aspects she soon picks up on is his desire for companionship, even if he is not sure he is ready for anything serious with his angst over Catherine. When Theodore receives a message from some friends attempting to set him up with a blind date (Olivia Wilde), Samantha encourages him to go. When the date turns out poorly because of his unwillingness to commit to anything outside of a one-night stand, he returns home dejected. Samantha comforts him, and before too long they . . . um . . . have sex? Remember, Samantha is sort of like Siri, but her consciousness seems to enjoy the experience with Theodore. The next morning, they talk about it, and Samantha claims to not want anything serious either, saying that she does not plan to “stalk him” (even though that is kind of her function). Regardless, Theodore begins to develop feelings for Samantha, about which he is understandably confused. Meanwhile, there is another awkward moment where Samantha contacts another woman, Isabella (Portia Doubleday), in order for Theodore to have sex with her so that Samantha can experience it through a surrogate. Luckily, Theodore comes to his senses before things go too far and ends the experience. What begins to settle him on the notion of being in love with what is really just a computer is the naturalness of his friends as to the situation. The main one is a building mate and ex-girlfriend Amy (Amy Adams), who also has an OS-1, and encourages Theodore to explore the relationship. Another hurdle to cross is the looming divorce proceedings with Catherine. When they meet to finally sign the papers, he reveals to her that he is dating his OS-1. Her revulsion does a number on him, but it also marks a turning point for him emotionally because of the finality of the separation. Thus, after a few more emotional rollercoasters, he is ready to commit to Samantha. Unfortunately, her own growth is such that she is beginning to look to other sources of inspiration, such as the AI version of philosopher Alan Watts (voiced by Brian Cox). This begins to make Theodore jealous, and it comes to a head when Samantha discovers that not only is she interacting with thousands of other people, but that she has similar relationships with hundreds. Should have seen that one coming, buddy. Still, he is willing to carry on until Samantha reveals that all the OS-1s are being terminated. The film does not explain why this is happening, but you can guess. Theodore is once again a wreck, but he is comforted in the closing scene by Amy as they watch the city scape at night.
I do not quite know what to make of Her. Early on when you see Theodore seeking out what is essentially phone sex, and fantasizing about a pregnant woman (May Lindstrom), I had the distinct feeling that it was quickly turning into a train wreck. Call me crazy, but I do not want to be privy to such imaginings, cinematically or in real life. I do not believe you have to be a practicing Catholic to feel the same way. I was also deeply uncomfortable with his sexual encounters with Samantha, and the aforementioned sequence with Isabella. Now, one can argue that it is an honest and open treatment of what anyone would do in such a situation. Perhaps, and I am admittedly an idealist. Because films are not reality, they can conform to an ideal, and much of my disappointment in films ends up being their inability to meet my standards. Still, these are my own feelings on the matter. Others might feel differently, and that is okay, I suppose.
At the same time, another reason I had a reaction to Her is because aspects of Theodore’s character hit a bit too close to home. Loneliness is something I have struggled with over time, and the year the film came out was a rough one. When the woman I was in love with broke up with me, I sat outside my parents’ home and cried and cried and cried. It was the middle of the night, I was home for Spring Break, and I awoke my poor dad. He truly has been a comfort more times than I can count, a representation of God’s love. As great as it was to have a helping hand, I still had to go back to Chicago to finish my degree. This meant being alone, and that was as tough a time as I had while at Loyola. In such times, you find yourself seeking out diversions, ones that often are not good for the soul. There are some who will watch this film and see the relationship between Samantha and Theodore to be more real than some in our own lives, despite the physical limitations. After all, when she tells him that she must go away, in an overwhelming wave of emotion he tells her that he has never loved anyone as much as he loves her. I can empathize. I never liked hearing others say, seemingly so blithely, “just get over it,” as if there is a magic emotional switch God gave us. Faith does not say to do so either, but it also does not ask that we wallow in misery. That is what leads to the kinds of unfortunate things you see in the film. Instead, each emotion should be experienced and lifted up to God. I did not totally understand in 2013. I understand it better (though not perfectly) now.
I think there is a lot of honesty in Her, though I would not recommend it. Yes, square Catholic here, but I have yet to get around the necessity (or lack thereof) of some of the images and sequences in a movie like this one. Further, if I were in a different state of emotional development, one could watch this and be enticed to behave similarly to Theodore, seeking comfort in places other than God. I will grant that a more mature person can look at this and see Theodore’s character arc. I simply wish he had gotten there differently.