Is Your Computer a ‘Him’ or ‘Her’? — and Other Questions Raised by Spike Jonze’s Speculative Romance

REARVIEW: Whether love can exist between man and artificial intelligence turns out to be but one of "Her's" fascinating hypotheticals.

Her Film Spike Jonze

Not enough has been said about the title of Spike Jonze’s “Her” — not its e.e.-cutesy tendency not to capitalize (which fits right in line with the film’s benign hipster aesthetic), but rather, the choice of a female pronoun to describe the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s affections in the film.

Meanwhile, much has been said about said object: Samantha, a self-aware, rapidly evolving computer operating system fashioned in the image of Siri — the love-or-hate, hard-of-hearing personal assistant that pops up whenever you accidentally punch the iPhone home button — or those coolly elegant female GPS personalities who threaten the male tendency to reject directions with their yard-by-yard updates on when and where to turn. I don’t know about you, but my experience with both has brought nothing but frustration (I dare you to ask Siri about “Her”).

In its own hypothetical, ever-so-slightly-sci-fi way, “Her” appears to be asking the question, “What would happen if a man fell in love with an artificially intelligent computer operating system?” Would culture be willing to accept such a nontraditional romance? Could the OS reciprocate his feelings? How would they “do it”?

These are all fine points to ponder, but they’re baby stuff compared to what I think Jonze really wants to know, and that’s a question poets and philosophers have been asking for ages: “What is love?”

Set in the same sunny near-future Los Angeles where two robots courted in Jonze’s short film “I’m Here,” the story concerns a lonely but sensitive writer named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s been dragging his feet before signing his divorce papers. He’s a pretty with-it guy (high-waisted pants nothwithstanding), so he’s one of the early adopters to buy and install a new operating system to help manage his computer (which looks vaguely like the current line of iMacs, offering more in common with white shadowbox frames than anything mechanical). Upon initial startup, the program asks a series of personal questions — would Theodore prefer a male or female OS? How is his relationship with his mother? — and before he can finish his answer, it reboots as the voice of Scarlett Johansson.

This first interaction between Theodore and Samantha is a critical one, as we the audience must also fall in love with “her” over the course of this scene. That’s less difficult than one might think, owing to Johansson’s incredible contributions to the film. Certainly, anyone who recognizes the voice can’t help but conjure a mental image of the actress to accompany it (as opposed to whatever abstract fantasy we might conjure for Siri or the disembodied AT&T operator), and it helps that the crew seems to have sweetened her voice somewhat, removing some of the huskier qualities that set Johansson apart as far back as “Ghost World,” in which her teenage character sounded as if she’d been smoking for decades.

So, thanks to Johansson, Samantha is unequivocally a “her.” But is it really fair to assign a gender to an operating system? Plenty of folks anthropomorphize their cars and computers. (A friend named his Dodge Neon “Phoebe,” for example, and spoke to his computer long before it could talk back.) For both Theodore and the audience, it’s really a matter of projection. Once you get past thinking about Samantha as a high-end Siri, the film invites you to embrace the allegory and personalize Theodore’s dilemma with whatever romantic experience you bring to the table.

It should be noted that apart from a few other characters — most notably Amy Adams as the unhappily married human girl we inevitably think might be a better match for our hero, and a diverse range of extras glimpsed whenever Theodore ventures outside his apartment — the film takes place almost entirely on Phoenix’s face. “Her” is essentially a one-man show, and apart from Johansson’s vocal performance, Samantha exists entirely in our heads.

Certainly, in the wake of the Defense of Marriage Act ruling by the Supreme Court, it’s not hard to read the film as an allegory for nontraditional unions. If a man can love a man, why can’t a man love a computer? (It’s certainly preferable to Pat Robertson’s fear that same-sex rights will lead to protection for someone “who likes to have sex with ducks.”) It’s far easier for most people to empathize with Theodore’s situation when Samantha is so clearly a female construct.

But what strikes me as potentially profound about Jonze’s script is not the question of whom we love, but how much it seems to understand about the way we love. Of course Theodore falls for Samantha, not because his new OS happens to be female or has the voice of Scarlett Johansson, but because, from the very first moment, she demonstrates a deep personal interest in him. Within a matter of milliseconds, she analyzes all the files on his computer and offers feedback on his creativity. She compliments him on his wit, laughs at his jokes and expresses a hyper-attentive curiosity about him. She is, to put it bluntly, a narcissist’s best friend. And isn’t that what men really want in a mate: someone to reflect their own specialness back at them?

Now, for the sake of those who haven’t yet discovered “Her,” I don’t want to spoil what becomes of their romance, which blends the challenges of long-distance relationships (where the two parties talk constantly, but don’t have the chance to be physical) with virtual ones (where either person could be assuming a false identity for the benefit of the other). But it’s not insignificant that their bliss ruptures the moment Samantha begins to express her own identity.

Anyone who has been in a relationship for a significant amount of time knows that the challenge of making it work arises because people change, which means that two people who met when they were emotionally on the same page must find a way to grow in parallel. But what if that initial encounter was as one-sided as it is here, where the attraction exists because the other party demonstrated a deep and exclusive interest in you? And what if, over time, that stopped being enough? As an artificial intelligence, Samantha evolves at an alarmingly fast rate, which allows Jonze to compress this idea into a relatively short span of time.

Finally, for those who have seen it (or don’t mind spoilers), a short word on the ending, which finds Theodore sharing a moment with Amy (Adams’ flesh-and-blood female character). Here again are two beings connecting when their souls seem to be in the same place. It’s remarkable that Jonze allows these two characters to be friends; he doesn’t push them toward sex, the way another movie might, as if sexual consummation were the goal of any male-female relationship.

To invoke the wisdom of “When Harry Met Sally,” “Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” In Theodore and Samantha’s case, the comely A.I. didn’t even have to be wholly a woman for the adage to prove true. And though he resists at first, Theodore ultimately redeems the initial selfishness of his attraction to Samantha, as per the poet’s words: “If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.” Samantha was the rebound he needed to get over his previous relationship. And Amy, well, there’s a whole other story yet to be written about her.