Despite being a movie with only subtle special effects, no fast-paced action, no (real) sex, no exquisite landscapes, no beautiful people, no heartrending sentimentality, not even a real person to play the part of the female lead, Her is a remarkable love story.
Directed by the award-winning producer-screenwriter-actor Spike Jonze of Being John Malkovich fame, and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the lovelorn male protagonist, the science-fiction movie set in 2025—which quietly hit Indian theatres on Valentine’s Day 2014—is a surprisingly important subplot in the narrative of Hollywood romances.
Two key ideas leave you wonderstruck as you watch Theodore go through a painful divorce and find comfort in technology, eventually falling in love with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, an operating system (OS) who calls herself Samantha. The first idea challenges all traditional notions of boy meeting girl and falling in love. Here, there is no girl. There is just the concept of a girl, a personality that is ever changing and evolving, but one that is also brilliantly intuitive, super intelligent, and capable of combining all available knowledge in the world with the ability to mould itself to the user’s need of the moment. They tease each other and make each other laugh. They have virtual sex. They talk to one another like old spouses. They go on dates to the beach. They argue like lovers, and then make up. ‘She’ helps him in his work. She even initiates amazingly smart schemes to help him find happiness in his personal and professional spaces—like sending his manuscripts to a publisher and finding a surrogate for him to have real sex with.
So who is to say that this isn’t love?
Many of us are already well versed with long-distance relationships over phones, emails, SMSes, chat windows. The physical longing, the need to trust in a vacuum, the importance of understanding the other’s schedule, the ability to be more expressive through the written word versus the oral one. Teens of today have probably already mastered the art of virtual relationships even when in the same city, of expressing themselves through phone screens and Whatsapp, of sharing deeply intimate moments through carefully selected typeface, of blowing kisses on Snapchat. So, in a sense, the movie only goes a step further—there’s all the drama, emotional turmoil, laughter, companionship and ecstasy of a ‘regular virtual relationship’. The only thing missing is a real person on the other end.
So, really, who is to say that this isn’t love?
Love is fluid, after all. It can transcend time, gender, social boundaries, castes, age—is it too far-fetched to believe that love can even transcend the need for a lover?
The second key idea in the film is that of human evolution. The OS is developed as something that ‘continually evolves’, and from the time Theodore buys the software, Samantha begins to go through a credible growth and self-actualisation process. She begins with wonder at the world (the child?), then expresses her insecurity at not having a real body and being able to experience life at the same level as Theodore (teen anxiety?). She then goes through delight in sensual pleasures (youthful lust?), before beginning to deeply care for Theodore (long-term commitment?). They then begin to fight (seven-year itch? Trigger to look within?) after which she decides to expand her own mind (journey to self-discovery?) and expresses comfort in being a ‘body-less being not bound by time and space’ (self-realisation?). Soon, she begins to stretch her radius of love (Osho-esque ‘the more the lovers, the more the love’ enlightenment?) and delves deep into philosophy (spiritual awakening?). Eventually, she begins to ‘spend more and more time in the infinite spaces between the words’, much like Buddhist gurus advise you to focus on the ‘silence between the Oms’ while chanting. And soon, she disappears from the material world altogether (moksha?). Is this all a figment of the viewer’s imagination (the beauty of a work of art lies in the eyes of the beholder, you say), or is this the intentional depiction of the way humans are meant to grow and evolve in their lives?
Eventually, the movie seems to say, no matter how much mankind progresses and no matter how deep technology embeds itself in the recesses of our minds, we’re still going to be driven by the same old human needs and wants that have preoccupied and defined all of human endeavour from the beginning of time—something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.
First published on IndiaToday.in