On human connections in the digital world.
By Jay Sizemore
Her is a film of prophetic power and vision. It is beautiful and heartbreaking, and at turns terrifying. This is the ‘Fahrenheit 451’ of the iPhone age. Spike Jonze has made an unforgettable work of poetic truth, and I encourage anyone who feels lost without their cell phone to watch it.
At the centre of this story is a man — Theodore Twombly (played with dazzling emotive skill by Joaquin Phoenix). Notice how his last name is a mixture of the words womb and tomb. This may be because his character can’t decide whether to be metaphorically alive or dead. The narrative takes place in the not-too-distant future, where everyone wears ear pieces that they communicate with through voice commands, a very obvious ‘Fahrenheit 451’ influence, though in Bradbury’s world they were called “seashells”. At his workplace, Theodore spends his time composing letters for other people to send to their loved ones. The moment he is done with his job, he puts in his ear piece and starts communicating only with his computer. He is not the only one; when he walks into an elevator, or down the street, everyone is only focused on their own interactions with their own devices. His job is an extension of the distance humanity is placing between actual human interaction or connection. He is lonely though, and he still craves that connection, but he seeks it from his device. We see an example of this when he goes to a chat room and solicits cyber sex with a stranger, however, a lack of human interaction creates anomalies in absence of inhibition, as the cyber sex he initiates takes an unexpected turn and goes horribly wrong. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say it’s strange and hilarious.
When Theodore follows the suggestion of an advertisement, he gets paired with Samantha, his new desktop operating system. Samantha is the next step in artificial intelligence, completely self-aware and capable of lifelike interaction, including evolution of individual character. The way she and Theodore interact begins what I feel is the true message of the film, beyond the obvious warnings of humanity’s obsession with information. Of course, there are more subtle ideas at play here, involving metaphysics and existence, as to what exactly makes a human consciousness and can it exist outside of the physical body, but the main goal of this relationship that builds between Theodore and Samantha is a double-edged sword: a depiction of how a true loving relationship can exist without a physical standard of beauty, but also an acknowledgement that mental stimulation is not enough to sustain a relationship for the long term without an actual physical connection. I feel these points are exemplified wonderfully through the narrative in great scenes. First, Theodore is set up on a date with a very attractive woman at the start of his interaction with Samantha. On the date, they are both drinking and attracted to the other, but things get weird and quickly dissolve when the woman wants to jump immediately into a hard commitment with Theodore. This is another example of how technology is breaking down the social norms of human interaction. They are both so used to interacting with a technology that nurtures their own desires at every moment, they don’t know how to allow other people’s needs to exist within their own bubbles. Their own selfish desires conflict with the other’s. Afterwards, Theodore goes home and proceeds to have sex with his computer for the first time, rather than having sex with an actual human being.
Second, there comes a point when during the arc of their relationship, Theodore and Samantha are having trouble because Theodore has recently seen his wife, whom he met to sign the divorce paperwork, and she accused him of not wanting anyone that requires him to put effort into the relationship. She is a very pretty woman, and Theodore frequently has nostalgic flashbacks about their marriage. Jonze offers yet another critique of idealised body image — although his wife is extremely attractive, their marriage fell apart over personality differences. Still, he begins to feel guilty about his relationship with Samantha, because he knows she is not a real person. Because of this, there is a fantastic moment, and another revelation on body image, when Samantha hires a “surrogate body” to come and interact with Theodore while she provides the voice, in almost a threesome of man, woman, and machine. Theodore can’t go through with it, because he “doesn’t know” the surrogate woman well enough, even though she is extremely attractive.
Without going into excruciating detail, the relationship between Samantha and Theodore runs a natural course similar to most human relationships. It all comes to a predictable and yet sad conclusion. The ending is open to interpretation, on whether the characters decided to live or to die. My interpretation was quite different from my wife’s, who had a more positive reaction. Whether you react to it with joy or sadness, I guarantee you won’t look at your cell phone or your laptop the same way for quite a while. Films like this are rare and deserve to be loved.
Jay Sizemore is a film critic for the magazine.