Grieving the end of a romantic relationship can be grueling. In fact, may experts have said that the process of getting over a heartbreak is comparable to mourning a death. Everyone has their own ways of handling this pain, and oftentimes, the means of coping can be very isolating, as a person tried to collect the pieces of what feels like an entirely shattered life. Her follows one man’s unconventional coping mechanism as he embarks on a relationship with an artificial intelligence.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is facing an impending divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). Childhood sweethearts, this was the only major relationship of Theodore’s life, and not only doesn’t want to imagine a future without her, he is having trouble making sense of his present as well. The reasons for the divorce are never explicitly stated, but when the audience first meets Theodore, we see the portrait of a broken man. In his loneliness, a talking operating system, a form of artificial intelligence which functions as something like a personal secretary/companion. He chooses for his OS to have a female voice and she names herself Samantha.
Adapting as AIs tend to do, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) very quickly learns Theodore’s personality, adjusts to it, and the two become very close. Though Samantha encourages Theodore to date, he is unsuccessful in following through, as he is already falling in love with her. The two grow more emotionally and intellectually close, “consummating” their relationship with a verbal sexual encounter. The two start “dating”, as well as a man and an AI can date, and in this relationship, Theodore blossoms emotionally as well as vocationally. He becomes happier, more confident, and more ambitious, with Samantha’s support and encouragement. But as with all relationships, Theodore and Samantha face every day struggles, and the challenges of being together in such a unique situation prove to be enormous obstacles.
Her was lauded by many critics as a spectacular romance, but I saw it as anything but. I fully understand the drive to take companionship however you can get it when you are lonely and hurting. I also don’t discount the validity of relationships where partners cannot be physically intimate due to time and distance. However, this isn’t that. In Samantha, Theodore found a way to further avoid interactions with other human beings until he felt safe enough in the tremendous emotional labour that she’d done to build him back up to reintegrate himself in the company of other people. Though I do not know enough about artificial intelligence to understand how Samantha could fall in love with Theodore, it’s quite obvious that his “love” for her is a manifestation of not who she is but what is she: a machine whose purpose is to cater to his needs.
Samantha learns of Theodore through his words, actions, every single email he’s ever sent. She is in his home, a part of his home 24/7, and thus learned to anticipate his needs. In short: Samantha knows and has the opportunity to be a support, friend, and companion to Theodore in a way that no human being could possibly have the ability to. She “met” him, and learned best how to be the ideal partner to him, a conformity that she also implemented in all of her other relationships. If Samantha had been a woman, she would have had to lose herself entirely to be everything that Theodore wanted and needed. In learning about him, she became something of a mirror, which makes Theodore’s love for her nothing more than glorified narcissism.
While Her is well-written, perfectly cast, and features excellent dialogue, cinematography, and score, its praise as a ground-breaking love story only further highlights society’s toxic expectation that the partners of cis-het men cater to their every whim, provide consistent, unconditional support, and take on the roles of secretary, therapist, maid, and mother, as well as that of lover. In Theodore, we get a brilliant example of just how emotionally draining this can be, even for a machine. For me, Her is less about a man “finding love” and more of a story about a man getting the support that he needs to rebuild himself and his life.
I give this one 4.25 stars.