There is something prickly and provocative about the back story of Spike Jonze's Her, a futuristic drama in which a man named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love, as it were, with his artificially intelligent operating system. The voice of "Samantha" was originally that of actress Samantha Morton, but when the film was in post-production — after all of Phoenix's work had been shot with him hearing the voice of Morton — Jonze decided, as he told Audie Cornish recently, that "what Samantha and I had done together wasn't what the character needed or what the movie needed." He brought in Scarlett Johansson, who re-recorded everything, sometimes with new dialogue, sometimes with a hand from Phoenix.
As someone who writes a lot about the way popular culture treats both actresses and female characters, I reflexively stiffened when I heard this story. In switching out one actress for another after the fact, what was Jonze doing to Phoenix's performance? What was he saying about the Samanthas, both Morton and artificially intelligent?
Anna Shechtman recently wrote in Slate that Her is flawed because it lacks a real woman. Samantha, Shechtman points out, is without a body, without a face, without the ability to enjoy satisfying virtual sex with Theodore the way we are led to believe she does. She's not, in the end, a real woman.
And as far as it goes, this is clearly true. She's not a real woman. She's an artificially intelligent operating system. She has no history. She has no parents. She is exactly what Shechtman says she is: she is a non-person. She is a piece of artificial intelligence designed by some very advanced technology to fit Theodore's wants and needs. He owns her. He switches her on, he switches her off. She's not a real woman. She can break, perhaps unpredictably, but she cannot breathe.
But while Shechtman sees this as a flaw in the film, it's ironically what makes the story so soulful. Jonze is not setting up a simplistic, fatiguing argument about how we've lost our humanity to our devices, nor is he telling an idealized story about a man who meets the perfect woman.
He is asking what humanity is. He is asking what relationships are. He is asking, more than perhaps any movie I've seen in a long time, about the nature of love.
Because in the end, we are all run by chemistry and biology and electricity, even when we are in love, even when we are in grief, even when we are watching a film and analyzing it. Grow something in your head that shouldn't be there, change the chemistry, sever something, modify something, treat something, and you will get a person who acts differently, whose personality perhaps shifts. Jonze is asking, really: if we are the sum of processes that can be understood as based in science, why could science not recreate them?
Jonze recognizes, I think, that something in us reflexively says it cannot. We defend our own uniqueness and the uniqueness of the people we love, because even if we could ultimately trace every flood of love to a simple flood of chemicals, somewhere in that translation of science to emotion, something occurs. And that's what we don't really know how to explain and probably never will. You can say that a particular hormone makes people feel content, or happy, or stressed, but it all ultimately begs the real question. Because the real question is: what is it to be content? What is it to be in love?
And Theodore confronts these questions with the real women in the film played by Olivia Wilde and particularly Amy Adams as well. Shechtman argues that Adams' character isn't real, either, largely, it seems, because she's not overtly sexual toward anyone in the film.
Some real women, of course, are not. Some real women are shy, some have low libidos, some wear buttoned-up shirts, and some, as Shechtman describes Adams' Amy (note that Amy, like Samantha originally did, has her actress' name), are mostly listeners. I vehemently disagree, I must say, that this makes Amy unreal, because this, after all, is human variation. Amy isn't built to anyone's specs; she's just a lady who has some good things and some bad things and some strange things about her. She's kind of an odd duck, precisely because she is a real woman. Perhaps not a typical woman in a movie, but ... that's okay, I think.
The lack of "embodied female sexuality," as Shechtman puts it, certainly accurately applies to Samantha, in that she indeed has nothing embodied about her at all.
That's what the movie is about, though. Her unreality — the fact that she exists in a strange gray area between what is real and what blinkers the mind into believing it's real — is the point. She is not real, and yet the relationship feels real. Except, of course, that he didn't encounter her. He effectively created her. There's no resistance in their initial pairing, no surprise except surprise at how perfect she is, and he is indeed falling in love with a reflection of himself. Maybe we all do that.
This line between the feeling of love and love itself — and whether such a line exists or can be defined or would matter if it could be — is where Her finds its beautifully vexing, curious, exploratory charm. In a year that brought endless sequels and battles and building-smashing, it finds a moment to ask whether and how love matters, whether and how other people matter, or whether we would all rather construct high-walled yards and live in them with technology that so closely simulates human-to-human contact that perhaps it clears the hurdle. Perhaps it really is the same thing. Data in a brain, data in a cloud, it's all science. It's all signaling, cell-to-cell or particle-to-particle.
So as much as I love a "real woman" — and I'd argue Amy is one anyway — Samantha's unreality troubles me not at all. She is not the real thing, says Schechtman, and say I, and says Spike Jonze, and says Theodore. The question is what comes next.