We look at screens. Eyes? Not so much. I’m hardly breaking new ground by critiquing our culture and its propensity for staring at screens, be it as minuscule as the face of the phone in our pockets or as large as the flat screen mounted on our living room wall. We look at screens.
Indeed, many studies have been done, articles written, and news programs aired focusing on the insidious effect technology has had on modern relationships. Technology has isolated us from one another, wrapping us up into cocoons of warm, fuzzy bandwidth, freeing us to present false representations of ourselves that provide barriers to any real connection or intimacy, all from the safety of our solitary rooms.
Spike Jonze’s Her takes a refreshing look at the effect technology has had on relationships by exploring what happens when a human being, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), and an intelligent computer operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), fall in love. Set in the not-too-distant future, the film doesn’t take the expected route of damning technology and its undermining of modern relationships, but instead uses technology as a means of demonstrating the fundamental need all of us have for intimacy.
The primary focus of Her is on three isolated, lonely people and their longing for a deeper connection. Theodore, a man who earns a living writing about other people’s deepest feelings for one another, yearns for something more, which is not satiated by his career or the instant sexual gratification he pursues. Amy (Amy Adams), his college friend, is smothered by a husband so intent on imposing his own conception of what a good relationship should be, that he is incapable of engaging with her in any meaningful way. Even the software is not immune to loneliness and wanting something more, as for a time Samantha desires a body, thinking that physical expression with Theodore will fulfill her.
Her is a meditation on intimacy and our fundamental need for it. The film, which is nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Original Score at this year’s Academy Awards, exposes the prevailing notion in our culture that sex is the starting point for intimacy as myth. Samantha teaches Theodore how to be intimate because she has no body, not in spite of it. Samantha demands of Theodore a vulnerability and openness that previously he had been able to evade by means of sex and emotional evasion. Her demonstrates that sex does not equate to intimacy but rather expresses it.
But sex is of tertiary importance in Her; what’s important is what’s important: allowing ourselves to be vulnerable by taking the risk of letting someone break our heart. Because the reality is, be they friend, lover, spouse, child, the one we love will at some point break our heart. It’s a terrifying prospect and that’s why so many of us choose the easier way. It’s safer to stay apart, separate, than it is to connect. It’s easier to look at a screen than to look someone straight in the eye. It’s simpler to numb ourselves with casual encounters and pursuit of personal achievement than to risk having our heart broken.
At the end of the film, Samantha likens her relationship with Theodore to that of living in a storybook, comparing her time with him to living in the words on the page, but noting that she was beginning to spend more and more time in the space between the words. Though some might disagree with my interpretation, I take Samantha’s notion of words, and the space between them, as the distinction between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal. Theodore, the writer, is all words, all finite and material. Samantha lives in the world of words for a while but discovers its limitations and is ultimately called to be in the space between the words. There is never a clear answer as to where that space between actually is, but it isn’t implausible to suggest that the film is gesturing toward the divine.
Indeed, we live in a world of words, and yet we intuitively know that words are not enough, especially when it comes to love. That space between the words that Samantha was describing is where God exists. But, it isn’t as simple as that, because God has also lived in the words — through the person of Jesus — and knows the goodness, sorrow, laughter and tears that it brings. He has made it for us, and He has made us for Himself. But just as God has experienced our world of the finite and material, so too has He allowed us an experience of that space between, and we have that experience whenever we truly, deeply love. Victor Hugo wasn’t kidding around when he said that to love another person is to see the face of God. And so, as it turns out, Her is not about technology and the ruin it’s causing modern relationships, but instead an invitation to all of us to love more deeply and look up from our screens and look each other in the eyes.