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

Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely man who falls in love with an operating machine in ‘Her’

“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.” ~ ‘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.”

Bennett’s assertion applies to Her and 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.

Contrary to what some may initially assume, Her is not simply about our contemporary fascination with our devices. 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 our devices 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 decades.

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 example, 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 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.

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 implies that all feelings of love–regardless of what they’re directed toward–are equally measured in one’s mind.

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.”

There is a need for the individual to escape the forever empty feelings of human existence, and technology is one of the ways to do this. Her portrays 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 desires and fears. Throughout history, technology has allowed us to feel the joy that 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-to-human interaction, 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?

The article has been modified from a previous version published in The Artifice.

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