Destroy All Monsters: What's Wrong With HER

Matt Brown, Columnist

The thing that immediately skeeved me out about Her, which I presumed at the time (and still do) was the key element of the text, is only this:

When Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) first "meets" his operating system, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), she is an out-of-the-box piece of software. ("She" doesn't even have "her" voice yet - the initial voice is a pleasant male.) The nascent system asks Theodore three questions, the latter two of which are of a pathologically hilarious Freudian nature: what gender would you like your OS to be, and how was your relationship with your mother? - arguably the two questions by which we could, if we were able to answer them honestly, sort out our entire compass of adult relationships from puberty to death. The OS then cuts Theodore off and begins the stated process of adapting itself to Theodore's particular personality.

From here, i.e. from moment one, Samantha is - to my reading - a constructed personality based on Theodore's conscious and unconscious desires. Every single thing that she does (or does not do) from this point forward is, from my understanding of the science fiction elements of the text, based on a discreetly running algorithm that is, like Google is trying to do with us, getting to know Theodore better and better at every interaction, and iteratively re-writing itself to improve the Theodore-Samantha touch experience.

In other words, Samantha is not a person.

At least, she's not a person in any way that I can construct the idea. Even her third-act evolution past Theodore into some kind of heightened A.I. that eventually chooses to abandon the human race altogether is part of the "be what Theodore likes/wants/needs" program, as far as I can tell.

I might even argue that, based on what we see and know about Thedore over the course of the movie, he wanted and needed Samantha to leave him. (Theodore's response to the "How was your relationship with your mother?" question leaves a significant clue. "If I tell her something that's going on in my life, her reaction is usually about her," Theodore replies, and the OS finishes its analysis, perhaps rooting out that Theodore needs to confront his unresolved feelings about loving partners who put their needs above his own.)

But as such, Samantha is still not a person; or at least, she's a female partner for our male hero who is wholly constructed out of what that man wants. Perhaps for me to deny Samantha personhood is taking it too far; but I nonetheless find Samantha a deeply unsettling idea.

Now, as I've said, I presumed this to be Her's point, in the Solaris sense of the idea - i.e. all of our relationships (but in this case, specifically, with our lovers) are really just relationships with our inner constructions of those external personalities. We absorb the data from the people we fall in love with, and construct what we think is an understanding of the person.

But because this understanding is inside us, and therefore entirely subject to our whims and flaws and every other subjective thing about us, the person we think we're in love with doesn't really exist. They're a mirror construct - a reflected image, with the reflector in this case being the funhouse mirror that is Us.

This is the direction in which I thought Her was travelling, but perhaps I was wrong. The reaction to the film has, for the most part, taken it entirely straight: that a man falls in love with a piece of software, and that is the point, and oh isn't that interesting.

Of course it is: in terms of our relationships with online personae, Her is batting cleanup in a decade-long conversation about how Facebook and its brethren have completely rewired our emotional lives. And perhaps further down that direction, there is the question - which Her does seem to address - of how much this cyber-based distance between us and other IRL human beings might be changing and re-shaping the way we interpret, interact with, and respond to other peoples' personalities. When you're texting someone late at night, who/what are you texting?

But I don't trust Her as a love story (or anti-love story), because I don't trust Samantha as a character. I don't think she's really there. I think she's a few iterations above the goofy, potty-mouthed (and, importantly, heartily misogynistic) video game gnome who Theodore interacts with in the early parts of the movie. I also think she's a few iterations above the naked pregnant woman (again, importantly, pregnant woman, an image as ripe as it is canny) dancing in Theodore's fantasies as he attempts to get off during a phone sex chat.

In other words, I think Samantha exists entirely within Theodore's mind as a fantasy plaything, with the slightly inconvenient rider that she also exists as a piece of software on a computer. She's a tailor-made thing - the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as an iPhone app - and if that's the case, Her seems to be telling me that this guy, and by extension maybe all guys (and maybe all girls, though I'm not one, so I couldn't tell you) are only falling in love with iterations of our own programming, writ large in the hardware of other peoples' bodies.

If that's the case, I'm behind it as a piece of storytelling, but I don't think it's particularly sweet.


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

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  • Pa Kent Says Maybe

    That's a most-brilliant analysis, and the first time I've heard it articulated.

    Hold on a moment, while I re-think my largely blasé reaction to HER, based on this new perspective. Yes, the film is more interesting, even sadder, interpreted this way. Thank you. No, I don't like it any better than I did. Thank you, as well.

  • daisymae2u

    I saw Her this weekend, and what is spoke to me about was the nature of evolution and change (or lack there of) in relationships. Whether the relationship is between married couples, or a person and an AI system who was growing in knowledge at an extraordinary rate. Nothing is static, even if it looks like it in a relationship. if it seems static, that is when people start taking each other for granted. Ted's marriage had ended, but he couldn't let go. He had retracted from society. He was very depressed. What I think overall that Samantha did for Ted was teach him to recognize his issues with intimacy and confront scars from his past. She knew him well enough to guide him to enlightenment to grow into a better person-just as he did for her (person or not, she was at least an entity). While she outgrew him, it was a natural progression, because they were outgrowing each other. Not all relationships were meant to last forever, but they can be savored while they do. They are both better "entities" because of their relationship with each other.

  • A lovely piece (as always, Matt). I would argue, though, that Samantha isn't a construct based on Theodore's needs, but a companion based on basic personality cues. From the start, she's an evolving intelligence and how/what Theodore feels about her is almost secondary to what she feels/thinks about herself.

    More importantly, I think she's fully a person when she begins exploring her own wishes and desires (as well a interrogating the same).

  • You're definitely in the majority on that one. For me, the (neurotic?) concern on my part that even Samantha evolving beyond Theodore is part of the program stops me at the door...

  • I'm doubtful that their evolution was by design (she was, after all, a corporate product and the last thing a corporation wants is a product that gets up and leaves the user).

  • Lol, good point. :)

  • James Haygood

    I found this review to be very confusing. I don't get your point. For one, you say, "The reaction to the film has, for the most part, taken it entirely straight: that a man falls in love with a piece of software, and that is the point, and oh isn't that interesting." I haven't found that to be true at all... That's what people who haven't seen the film think it is. The people that I know who have seen it end up talking about relationships, with humans - that is what the movie is about. The computer relationship is a clever SciFi device, but the movie is about human relationships. You seem to be digging into this kind of thing yourself in the review - "But because this understanding is inside us, and therefore entirely subject to our whims and flaws and every other subjective thing about us, the person we think we're in love with doesn't really exist. They're a mirror construct - a reflected image, with the reflector in this case being the funhouse mirror that is Us." That's exactly true. You got it. So what's the disappointment? Then you end with: "Her seems to be telling me that this guy, and by extension maybe all guys (and maybe all girls, though I'm not one, so I couldn't tell you) are only falling in love with iterations of our own programming, writ large in the hardware of other peoples' bodies. If that's the case, I'm behind it as a piece of storytelling, but I don't think it's particularly sweet." OK, now you've lost me. So you're fine with the concept of the film AS A PIECE OF STORYTELLING, but it's not sweet... I thought film's main concern was the former, not the latter... Anyway, didn't really get "What's Wrong With Her", as the headline says...

  • I'm not disappointed, I'm confused about the piece's intent. As someone else commented at me today, the film's too earnest to be satire and too misanthropic to be romantic. So where, then is it trying to land? The intended tone is unclear to me, and when I can't suss out tone, I find it hard to locate intentions towards theme.

  • DarioArgento

    Exactly. This article basically discusses all the interesting and compelling aspects of the movie and then suggests that they aren't valid because of an imagined (and wrong) "general response."

  • Well, I can't tell either of you if I imagined the response or not, because if I did, I'd have no way of knowing it. Thanks though.

  • Great piece, even though I felt like a few of the issues you have are what made me enjoy it in a weird way. (Though I'm the person who liked Before Midnight because of how it painted them as a couple who should just break up, already - ha.)

    I feel like a lot of people (not you) seem to be finding this weird sense of relation towards the main character - that whole movie to me almost felt like Jonze showing a character and saying "this is the way I used to think. I wanted to be in relationships where I owned my partner, and could change and bend them to my will, but that's wrong".

    I haven't seen a lot of that in reviews - aside from the great discussion piece that appeared on BitchFlicks.

  • Corey Pierce

    All the questions about whether or not Samantha is a person make me like the film more as well. Both from the 'at what point do we consider something a person' level (ie. What makes Samantha more or less a person than Data, or AI's Teddy or Joe.. is it just a matter of body) and from her writing... on one level it seems like she has some sense of agency and ability to evolve and choose to move on. On another she's just custom based on what he initially answered.

    But we as people are also wired by our creators and the people who raised us, at least to a point, and then we evolve and move on to our own paths without the people who initially did so much to shape us. So on that level I guess you could argue that Samantha is as much a person as any of us, but the problem is she was tailor made to be in an intimate romantic personal relationship, rather than created and shaped by Theodore as a parent would.

    Ultimately in a way he is a bit of a parent, and she leaves him as one leaves the nest. Intentionally or not all these layers only enrich my experience with the film.

    But all this aside. On my first watch I was caught up with all these questions. On my second I let it wash over me on an emotional/sensory level, and it works for me there too. Still my favorite film of 2013, and like Adaptation, one that I think will keep me buzzing every time I go back.

  • Kurt

    The connection of HER to Soderbergh's SOLARIS is spot-fucking-on!

    Her is as much 'the law of unintended consequences' every time we enter into a relationship as it is anything else, no matter how good the 'design' (whether it is a childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara's ex) looking at dating profiles on OK-Cupid (Olivia Wild's casual date) or tailoring an A.I. in the customized sense (Scarlett Johansson's entitiy), there will always be wildly unanticipated things happening, which is what makes, LIFE as interesting and stimulating as it is. We attempt to design around the chaos, but it's only a temporary shelter at best, locally, globally, universally.

    Man, I love HER.

  • Yeah, I can see it from that angle.

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