What if None of This is Real?: Digital Love in ‘Her’

Theodore Twombly’s (Joaquin Phoenix) romantic obsessive attachment to his newly purchased operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) mirrors the audience’s relationship to cinema. Theodore is our surrogate, and as we watch him become consumed by his passionate love for his computer, we are symbolically watching ourselves fall in love with cinema, one magical movie at a time. As a result, the film forces us to confront our continued fascination with the fantastical, the imaginary, and the unreal.

In his essay “Children, Robots, Cinephilia and Technophobia,” Bruce Bennett argues that “the child/robot couple is a means by which Hollywood cinema represents technology in general and, more specifically, the technological character of cinema itself,” (2008, 169). I want to suggest that Bennett’s assertion applies to Her, and that Jonze implicates the audience through his depiction of Theodore’s relationship with Samantha, thereby challenging us to contemplate the complexities of our seemingly artificial relationship with technology and cinema. Of course, Theodore isn’t a child per se, but he is often portrayed as childlike throughout the film. For instance, he uses his free time to play video games, and in many ways his attachment to video games resembles his bond with Samantha, as they are both rooted in wonderment and escapism.

The film’s strength is its refusal to morally evaluate Theodore’s relationship. Instead, Jonze depicts the bond between Theodore and Samantha as he would a romantic relationship between two humans, and it parallels Theodore’s previous romantic relationship with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). As a result, he allows the audience to decide whether or not Theodore’s relationship with Samantha is real. In order to do this, however, we must take a step back and observe our own relationship with technology and cinema.

This is imperative because contrary to what certain film critics claim, Her is not simply about our contemporary fascination with computers. Of course, the film taps into internet culture and the concerns that human beings are becoming more dependent on digital technology and less on each other, but it also calls into question the very idea that our connection to computers is anything new. If we situate Her within a historical context, we can see that human beings have formed romantic obsessive attachments to inanimate objects for years.

One such object is the feature film and its various forms. Whether projected on a screen in a darkened room, rendered on a compact disc, or streamed through a digital device, movies have been a constant presence in our lives. We watch them, we feel them, we think about them, we talk about them, and we write about them. We do all of this in spite of the knowledge that cinema is artifice. We take it all so seriously even when we are aware that films are constructed by professionals for a profit. We comprehend that the characters we’ve come to love are fabricated by movie stars for millions of dollars, but we care about them anyway.

Her captures this tension. On the one hand, Theodore knows that Samantha isn’t a human, and throughout the film he calls attention to the absurdity of his attraction, saying, “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with my computer.” On the other hand, Theodore’s feelings for Samantha are portrayed as authentic, as he says, “I’ve never loved anyone the way I loved you.” This tension is similar to our relationship with cinema, as we know that movies aren’t real but become attached to them anyway.

Moreover, the film suggests that Theodore’s love for Samantha is manufactured by industries for a profit. Toward the end of the film, for instance, Theodore learns that Samantha is simultaneously having intimate relations with hundreds of other humans. This relates to cinema and what scholars have called “The Dream Factory.” That is, media industries like Hollywood create movies that audiences will love and then capitalize on this love for their financial benefit. We think that our connection to certain movie characters is rooted in intimacy, but the reality is that hundreds of other moviegoers are having similar reactions. Just as Samantha isn’t created solely for Theodore’s consumption, movies aren’t intended for one individual to cherish. Movies, above all else, are made for the masses.

Therefore, when we consider the relationship between human and technology in Her, we are ultimately faced with the fact that any intimate feelings of love we have for these inanimate objects–movies, cars, computers, etc.,–are exploited by industries and corporations for a profit. The question that remains, then, is whether or not this love is rendered less real as a result.

Although Theodore is devastated by the revelation of Samantha’s infidelities, Her doesn’t take the easy way out and undermine the intensity of his bond with Samantha. Instead, the film implies that Samantha’s final deceit would be no different or less painful if it were caused by a human. For Jonze, any romantic relationship survives on the basis of illusion and imagination, and Theodore’s feelings for Samantha are strong because Theodore wants them to be strong.

Further, Theodore’s disillusionment after Samantha’s betrayal has less to do with her being an operating system and more to do with her being an intimate lover who hurts him. It is appropriate to assume that his heartbroken reaction to Samantha’s deceit is similar to the way he felt after his marriage with Catherine ended, which renders a problematic implication that feelings of love–regardless of what they’re directed toward–are only real for a temporal amount of time.

At one point toward the end of the film, Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) confesses a sentiment that surely captures what most individuals are feeling today. Like Theodore, Amy develops a strong bond with an operating system, and although she is aware that the computer is non-human, she can’t help but love it anyway. The feelings she gets from the operating system–pleasure, joy, an escape from life’s difficulties–are valuable to her, and like Theodore, she wasn’t able to receive them in her previous marriage. As Amy says to Theodore, trying to rationalize her relationship with an operating system, “We’re only here briefly, and while I’m here, I want to allow myself joy.”

Media scholar danah boyd claims that human beings use technology to create an alternative realm in which they can take control of their lives and find meaning that they would otherwise lack. boyd concludes that human to human interaction isn’t sufficient, and that humans turn to technology to compensate. boyd focuses on social media, but her argument can apply to any human interaction with technology, including but not limited to cinema. There is a desire for the individual to escape the forever empty feelings of human existence, and technology is one of the ways to do this. Her adheres to this by portraying characters who try to form intimate connections with fellow human beings, fail to do so, and find more fulfillment in technology as a result. That is, until technology unexpectedly stops providing them with what they need.

Her resonates because it speaks to our fears and desires. Throughout history, technology has allowed us to feel what Amy describes. Whether it be cinema, cars, or computers, we’ve developed deep connections with the artificial and inanimate. However, there is the lingering sense of dread that technology isn’t completely satisfying. By the film’s end, both Theodore and Amy are betrayed by their operating systems, just as they’ve been betrayed by humans in their past relationships, and just as we leave the theater knowing that all of it is pretend. This is the paradox of the human-technology relationship. Human beings rely on technology to fill a void left by the limitations of human existence, yet human beings are always aware that technology won’t provide them with the meaning they seek precisely because technology isn’t human.

This leaves me with a final question that I have yet to answer: If technology cannot adequately fill the void, what can?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Jon Lisi is a PhD student who writes about film, television, and popular culture. You can follow his work here: http://jonlisi.pressfolios.com/.

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  1. Edith Morgan

    Falling in love with yourself or a concept can be just as beautiful if not more beautiful than any ‘potential’ person out there. Better to have a romance with Plato’s forms than accept the limiting reality of imperfect people.

  2. My cousin won tickets to a pre-screening to this movie. I had never heard of it before, so I came in with no expectations. After watching it, this was by far one of the best films I’ve seen. In a year where all of the ‘better’ movies were sequels and remakes, it’s nice to see original content. And this film was certainly it.

  3. i just watched it , very well done , the second best film ive seen this year after gravity

  4. Sci fi novels deal with the blurring of real and virtual, the psychological effect inherent in our growing dependence on and relationship to technology far better than the clumsy fumblings of Hollywood ever will..

    • Jon Lisi

      Interesting point. You should write an article about Sci fi novels that deal with the blurring of real and virtual.

  5. Shelton B

    To be perfectly blunt, I don’t read or watch or ponder Science Fiction to learn anything, other than perhaps what the author may feel to be a worthwhile issue affecting our present condition here on Earth, now, today. When I was younger the snazzy exotic gadgets, machines, vehicles and weapons of SciFi thrilled and mesmerized me – Star Wars!! – but as I matured I became more impressed with SciFi that more so is a statement about our present day real world. It’s the cleverly disguised, masked, oblique allusions and references to contemporary conditions and issues which most intrigue me with the art form.

    A film such as Steven Soderbergh’s masterful re-imagining of the classic Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Solaris, speaks directly to our society’s fixation with our own individual neuroses and pathologies. Increasingly, we are all being trapped in self fashioned prisons constructed of our compulsive, obsessive need to entirely surround ourselves with the artifacts and images which most vividly reflect our most disturbing, frightening and seductive psychological wounds. We are all meticulously constructing elaborate, near lifelike replicas of the dreams and nightmares which haunt our psyches.

    Our virtual world is more and more a manifestation of the irrepressible instinct of the fragile, tender human mind to find balance, to seek relief from the torment of past traumas, to escape the relentless, tiresome, wicked tyranny of our psychic wounds. And most curious and disturbing of all is that we attempt to dominate these undesirable, unwelcome emotional intrusions by recreating them. The highly motivated, devious architects of our electronic universes are ceaselessly engineering ever more sophisticated means by which we may encapsulate ourselves within a digital cocoon of our own psychosexual dysfunction. Cyberspace is a fantastical shimmering realm where we are encouraged to laminate upon ourselves multiple layers of alluring digital media comprised of dramatized, heightened, sensationalized iterations of our own personal emotional and mental malfunctions. Neat, huh?!

    • Jon Lisi

      Thanks for the comment. You should expand this further into an article of your own…I’d look forward to reading it.

  6. Patsy Tucker

    I don’t think there’s an actor currently working today that’s anywhere near as good as Joaquin Phoenix so I can’t wait for this.

  7. Terrell Lopez

    Definitely intriguing enough to get me to go see this once it hits theaters. Plus, listening to Scarlett Johansson’s voice is a nice way to spend a few hours.

  8. Been reading some engaging articles on this site. I think we need a new category called Future-Fi, for things that we think may really happen. From this analyses, I think this is really possible in the future.

  9. McRamon

    Vulnerable and damaged are the words i would use to describe this Jonze masterpiece, and I mean that in the best possible way.

  10. Excellent movie. It made for a great way to close out NYFF. I hope Phoenix’s performance gains some traction during the season, although it will be difficult to stand out among the Best Actor contenders for this year.

  11. Suzanne Williams

    The setup, or premise, sounds quite like ‘Easier With Practice’ which is one of my favourite films from two or so years ago.

  12. Jessica Eve Kennedy

    This film sounds so interesting. I really look forward to seeing it. Great article!

  13. What a wonderful discussion. For your information, we are discussing this over at Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/movies/comments/1tpb1q/this_study_of_reality_in_her_joaquin_phoenix_is/

    • Jon Lisi

      Thanks for continuing this discussion on the Reddit forums! It’s true–it’s difficult to engage in intelligent discussions about films on the internet, but at least there are places where we can try.

  14. Francis

    A physics philosopher friend of mine once told me that it is a species’ ultimate goal of this universe to ascend out of it – so that in billions of years when the stars are all extinguished and everything goes cold, that species has escaped to another stable existence.

  15. Neil Roberson

    I thought that the movie was kind of a sideshow to the next great evolutionary leap, whereby the creations of humankind transcend the material world that we recognise as reality, and we are left behind. I saw the story basically being that Theodore fell in love with a being that almost immediately ‘grew out’ of the relationship (as was mentioned within the context of other relationships). It’s kind of like what was suggested in Spielberg’s AI, that humankind will eventually be superseded by its own creations.

  16. Mette Marie Kowalski

    What a wonderful article! It expands my love for this movie which has become my favorite film of 2013 after I watched it yesterday. One thing I disagree with is that technology can’t fill the ‘void’ because it’s not human – humans can’t seem to fill the void perfectly either (at least in the movie), can they? In my opinion, it depends on the situation. For example, at the beginning, Theodore isn’t satisfied with his friends and with other relationships, so Samantha fills his personal void. When she does, there’s room for other people like Amy and Theodore’s co-worker. And when she leaves, we have the feeling that Amy and Theodore fill each other’s voids.

  17. I absolutely loved this movie, I think it’s brilliant specifically because I thought it was the opposite of misogynistic.

    The only movie I think is really similar to it is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in terms of style and the tremendous sense of loneliness and longing throughout both films.

  18. Great read, Jon. I hadn’t really broken it down in terms of cinema and applied it to myself. You’ve given me quite a lot to think about. As for your question, I think only other humans will be able to ever fulfill us to the point where we no longer seek it. There is a fatal mentality that will always question whether an interaction with technology is “real” even if the feelings are, therefore, I think technology is destined to always fail in fulfillment, although it may come close. Just my thoughts.

  19. I wonder if, as you state, there really was no moral evaluation regarding Theodore and Samantha’s relationship? I am still struggling with the film’s seeming need to return its human actors to human relationships, while its operating-system characters waltz off into an invisible, digital sunset of implied polyamory. This leaves me pondering whether we are meant to see that the natural conclusion of the whole (experimental?) affair was the move back to human-human companionship and the possibility of romance between the two leads who were jilted by their operating system lovers. (FULL DISCLOSURE:I am working on an article about this film myself, and am leaning heavily- at this point in time- toward the queer potentiality that I see as intrinsic to Jonze’s overall narrative.)

  20. Austin Vaitsblit

    Jon, you’ve knocked it out of the park.

    Seriously, great article topic, and succinctly written. Same for your Gulliver’s Travels article.

    Bravo. Articles like these make it a pleasure to frequent the site.

  21. I don’t recall the exact line, but the part of “Her” that struck me the most was when Samantha wondered whether her feelings were really hers, or whether they were part of her programming. It made me think about how much of what we want, or love, is truly our desire, and how much of it is simply “programmed” into us by society, family, etc. It’s a frightening thought, really.

  22. Jordan

    I saw this movie the other day with my boyfriend and loved it. There Ida manga (Japanese comic) that explores all the same themes in “Her” – Chobits. I would read some of it online if you can, it’s one of my favourites .

  23. Lauren Gabourel

    This was my favorite film of 2013. It was not just a story about a man falling in love with an operating system, but love in general and how it helps us find ourselves. Because once he finds love, he actually finds happiness, not in Samantha but himself.

  24. Max Lin

    In terms of this movie trying to explore what is real, I kept looking to this quote from The Truman Show: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” It didn’t matter that Samantha was technically artificial intelligence (and I like how Jonze refrained from using that term). She was as real to me as she was to Theodore and it’s brilliant that this film was able to capture that for the audience as well.

  25. Firstly, this article was well-written, and I liked the incorporation of others’ ideas to support your thesis. This move makes for a stronger essay. I agree with your application of this movie’s concepts to social media. Not only do people create alternative worlds by immersing themselves in technology and social media, they present alternative selves to the public. Then they are left with asking who they really are at the end of the day? Are they facebook-self, or real-self? Social media allows for a lack of sincere emotion behind “posts” or entries, no body language or facial expressions, etc… It’s frightening to think so many people exist more in the technological world than the real world; and I think this problem negatively affects interactive human relationships as well.

  26. What struck me most about your article was the point about how “human beings use technology to create an alternative realm in which they can take control of their lives and find meaning that they would otherwise lack.” I don’t believe this is a new idea, nor one that is inherently attached to technology. There are many technological advances in our society that are not used for escapism. On the other hand, I do believe that humans have always had a propensity for dreaming about what life could be. It’s as simple as our sense of adventure. And that has been driving us since before we were homo sapien. It drove us to migrate from Africa to Eurasia and finally to the Americas. And then we were driven to space and the depths of the ocean. Now we use technology to see what could be and create alternate realities.

  27. I appreciate your honesty in this piece. Artificial Intelligence is becoming a very advanced area of life and by mixing love in with it, there is something quite powerful created. It’s interesting to see this.

  28. This is a really interesting concept and it fits very effectively. I hadn’t really considered this as a meaning behind the film where I kind of just enjoyed they film very deeply and didn’t want to “taint” my memory of it by over thinking it’s significance and, while this view could be described as pessimistic, it brings to light a lot of valid attributes of our culture and society.

  29. This is quite a fascinating decoding of this film that is one of the freshest I’ve read about so far. I really liked how you disregard critics’ claims of the obvious subject of the film, and brought forth new ones for us to ponder on and discuss.

  30. I really can’t wait to see this film. I’ve heard rave reviews on it, and you’re review was excellent. Thanks for getting me pumped!

  31. Francisc Nona

    I’m not sure if you’re going to see this, since it’s been some time from the date you posted your article, but I’ve just watched Her and have my thoughts about the film myself. I don’t think the love between Theodore and Samantha is an obsessive one. Or if it is, it is by no means any different from the obsessiveness of any love affair. The film is multidimensional, so it’s hard to put a categorical stamp on it. At one level, it makes a statement about a long-lasting question: whether technology can provide what we, through our mere human condition, cannot provide. For that, of course, it taps into something even more complex and more inviting of criticism: whether technology can give us affect. Truth is, it can. And one doesn’t need to watch Her to see this. Just think about the affective implications of our use of telephones, or do go further back in the hierarchy of technologies, our relationships to knife and fork, to clothes, to fire. All these things come packaged with affect. Now, to pose the problem of an operation system capable of delivering pure human interaction means, among other things, to transfer human attributes to a machine. And that, again, is not new. At the end of the day, every piece of technology is designed to do what we can’t. And that’s where Her places the strongest stress. Let us not forget that Theodore can’t find social satisfaction in any of the women he’s met. Samantha, however, gives him precisely that.
    What I found most fascinating in the film is the idea of technological dysfunction; or rather: misfunction. That’s the moment when Theodore loses connection with the OS. Jonze was quite clever here to pin a moment of tension at the centre of a narrative that had been (up to that moment) so hedonistic it could have killed the story.
    There’s a lot to be said about this film, but this is a mere comment, so I’ll stop.

  32. Very interesting article – I’d never heard of Donah Boyd before, but I’m definitely going to look her up. I would argue, however, that the human characters in Her do not love their OS counterparts in spite of the fact that they are not human. My interpretation of the film is that what makes us love, and what we love in others, is not a strictly human attribute. It’s something that transcends flesh and blood. Likewise, when we watch a film that we love we are not being duped into having an intimate emotional reaction to a piece of technology – what we love about those films and those characters transcends the technology of the medium. After all, we’ve been falling in love with stories and their characters for as long as we’ve been telling stories to one another. Which is a quite a long time.

    Just some food for thought.

  33. God, I love this article. The juxtaposition between human-technology to human-films is one I would have never thought to consider. And yet it is infinitely obvious, this relationship we share with things and people and worlds who we understand aren’t real, but can’t seem to care. Really fascinating as well as inspiring.

  34. I think both this film and your article are bringing up some of the most relevant questions of the day. We’re scared of our own attachment to technology these days, but since we are unable to stop or even slow down our production or usage of it, can one really call this attachment unnatural? It seems like the kinds of connections with inanimate objects you describe in this article are a very natural human desire. Is it a detrimental one? I’m not sure.

  35. Nice: “watching ourselves fall in love with cinema, one magical movie at a time”. A very interesting take on the cinema and our need to escape into the screen, if only as spectators. Thought it is acting, maybe the reason we fall in love is becasue in the smallest of ways, there is a minute truth that grabs at each of our experiences … and we understand and we feel understood. It is a ploy feeding on our insecurities and need for connection but in little ways, though we follow blind with open eyes, there is some magic in the movies … if only we chose to believe.

  36. JPargament

    I saw Her in theaters several months ago and walked out loving it. My girlfriend, at the time, did not feel the same way. Her is a movie that needs deep analysis and some people just won’t get it.

    That being said, the meaning behind Her goes deeper than the bonds between humans and technology. It is a story about love and loss.

    What Her is really saying, like you said, is that love is an illusion. An illusion that justifies spending part of our lives with another person. But what Her gets at is that this love is only temporary. Like a computer without a charger, we, for the lack of a better word, use others because we truly believe we love them and when they don’t serve us a purpose anymore (i.e. a dead computer) we move on to the next thing that will give us some pleasure.

  37. I am inclined to think that one of the biggest assets of this movie is that it brings out the fact that contemporary love is an imaginary construction. Human romantic attachment to each other has probably ever existed but its “mandatory” format is very recent and is quite interesting how the film depicts in an alternate or future reality (it is sci-fi after all) the possibility of expanding love and its related activities to more than humans, specially since by the end Samantha has outgrown the human parameters and ethic implications of a relationship.

  38. samcel

    Great article! I haven’t seen this movie yet but I’ve been meaning to and you’ve definitely made it seem more interesting! This story really is an interesting metaphor for our obsession with fake movie/TV characters and technology.

  39. Lacey Womack

    I watched this recently and wasn’t really expecting to like the movie but it really surprised me. Seeing the people walk around talking into their headsets in the movie seemed so funny to me until I went out later and realized how much time I spent doing the same thing in a way, staring into my phone texting.

  40. Helen Parshall

    Congratulations on doing what no one has managed to make me do surrounding this movie: actually want to watch it. I’ve been so put off by the idea since it came out, but reading your piece made me wonder whether or not it was due to my own fears and anxieties about the roles of technology in my life that I refused to see it. Excellent and incredibly thought-provoking article. Thank you for sharing!

  41. Slaidey

    I just finished a course focusing on themes in sci-fi and one of them was technology as surrogacy. It was in this course I was introduced to the movie Her. You bring up a lot of good points. I definitely felt like Her didn’t fit in with other films about people falling in love with technology because in those cases it was easier for the protagonists to love an inanimate object than a person because all they really wanted was a projection of themselves, whereas Samantha is different in that she does not conform to Theodore’s wants; she has a personality of her own.

    As to your question, do I think Samantha could have filled the void? No, because she became more than just an OS. Had she stayed a blank canvas who lived to fulfill Theodore’s desires.. maybe. The void can only be filled by oneself and if you are simply projecting yourself onto something else (other than a human because other humans have their own desires which can conflict with yours) then it becomes much easier to love yourself. When we pursue outer love it is in many cases just an attempt to find inner love.

  42. Grace Maich

    I think it was interesting that this film took an entirely different approach to the fear that technology and artificial intelligence has instilled in people. Most ‘robot’ films deal with a robot uprising of sorts or robots wanting to destroy humanity, which has consequently made the idea of artificial intelligence very scary for a lot of people. Instead of using such a cliché, Her dealt with the fear that technology will out-evolve humans, leaving people feeling like humanity will eventually become irrelevant. I thought that was a really interesting concept that isn’t often seen in material dealing with AI.

  43. Fantastic article!!

  44. I actually think there is something incredibly intimate about realizing that someone somewhere else is watching a screen and feeling the same thing I am.

  45. “If technology cannot adequately fill the void, what can?”

    The only temporal being that can do this is yourself. Having a void implies deficiencies that you need to fill on your own terms somewhere.

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