As a friend pointed out, Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her picks up and then summarily drops various social commentaries in passing, each of which may have been embellished into a whole narrative in most other films. At times the observations are laboured (as is the score, yelling at us to emote), at times they sit subtly in the background, filling out the gratifyingly non-dystopian future world. Despite some blind spots (where are the commercial interests of the OS merchants, and do all workers live in the lap of luxury like Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore?), one of my favourite social comments comes via Casey Storm’s work; rarely do costume designers get the opportunity to devise a wardrobe of dowdy garb and faux-pas, highlighting the facilely transitory nature of fashion. It is also nice to note that technological developments haven’t robbed our lives of meaning – a lazy imaginative shorthand we’ve come to expect from much sci-fi cinema.
But really, the sci-fi elements are bolstering a study of long-term romantic relationships, nuanced enough to resist totalising into a discrete summary of intent. The clearest social indictment in the film, scarcely commented on by critics at large, could be the gender politics, and acknowledgement of the way we tend to find ourselves in unsustainable teacher/pupil relationships.
The film’s three relationships establish different manifestations of this phenomenon. The first we are introduced to is the marriage of Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). Charles is overtly domineering. He offers unsolicited advice as though he were the fountain of knowledge and Amy the recipient of his wisdom; his self-righteousness comes laden with an expectation that she should fit in with his superior priorities. Thus, this kind of relationship norm can be used as a control mechanism.
Later in the film we learn more about Theodore’s separated wife (Rooney Mara) when Theodore finally gives a potted history of their relationship. When he describes the good times, he speaks of helping her with her university theses. It is clear he also wanted to help with her anxiety issues. Here, we see that these relationships can also be motivated by genuine care, and can be understandable – no one is to blame.
Finally, Theodore’s relationship with the OS Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) begins with him teaching her about the world, and [SPOILERS AHOY] ends with her exponential (artificial) intelligence far surpassing his meat-world computational capacity. In a neat appropriation of queer theory, Samantha still loves Theodore, but extreme intelligence is correlated with liberalised love, which plays out nicely in the film’s final act: the selflessness of the final OS sacrifice makes for a fitting thematic conclusion. By the end of their relationship, they still love each other, but the imbalanced romance they initially relied on is subverted, then is gone.
These are different examples of the same presumption that we can start from in relationships, that men provide worldly knowledge and women receive it. It doesn’t work primarily because all humans (and potentially posthuman AIs) aren’t static: they are dynamic and change. Gender imbalance therefore works like any other imbalance in that it will eventually destabilise.
Perhaps the best film for comparison, then, might be John Sayles’s 1983 drama Lianna, in which the teacher/pupil relationships lifted from a heterosexual marriage are grafted onto a lesbian relationship.
Both Lianna and Her study our attraction to such normalised roleplay without resorting to high-handed shame or blame. It’s especially nice to see science-fiction cinema about good people striving – and at times failing – to exhibit kindness to one another.