thoughts on metaphor in Spike Jonze's Her

I saw Her yesterday. It absolutely blew my mind, and I came away feeling inspired to write a little bit about it, because I can't remember the last time I found a film so intellectually stimulating. (Clearly I need to make better Netflix selections.) If you haven't seen it and intend to, definitely skip this post. I'd hate to spoil anything for anyone.

There is so much beautifully orchestrated symbolism in Her, both narratively and visually speaking. More often than not, I find myself rolling my eyes at the construction and delivery of metaphor in movies, which tends to feel heavy-handed, or worse - manipulative. But in Her, it just sat quietly with me, waiting for me to grasp and appreciate it. I actually got the chills when the full weight of certain dialogue exchanges and plot points settled on me. The writing is just that fantastic.

The first thing that struck me was the use of color, in the set design and costumes - bright hues that had been desaturated; softened in intensity. Oranges and corals and reds with the heat turned down - a directorial choice that I interpreted as a deliberate exception to what seem to be the two predominant colorscaping choices in films set in the future: glaring, overly bright and blown out (as if to reflect the inevitable obliteration of the ozone) or coolly monochromatic and desolate (the hopelessness of a post-apocalyptic world). The color story of Her suggests an outlook that is optimistic overall, but devoid of the falsely cheerful/easy futurism we are sometimes promised. No, there won't be jet-packs. And yes, there will still be human emotion and sentiment, in spite of our enhanced technological state. Her goes easy on us in this way. We are asked to consider some rather disturbing concepts (and occasionally make difficult leaps of logic), but the film's gentle aesthetic at least makes them easier to swallow.

Another thing I noticed about the costumes was their construction and fit. The clothing in Her is relatively conservative in style, with very little skin showing either on men or women (save for at the beach). This is especially noticeable in the outfits of Theodore's friend Amy, who dresses in layers that are literally buttoned up to her neck. In the context of a repeatedly emphasized disconnectivity between humans (everyone onscreen is perpetually dialed in to one or another electronic devices, and the degree to which we've become reliant on virtual relationships is made graphically clear in a phone sex scene involving, among all things, a dead cat), this reads like visual punctuation to that disengagement. As if, since we no longer let us see one another's emotions without some kind of mediating barrier, we may as well hide our bodies from each other, too. On the other hand, the wardrobing of Her seems like a reaction - a backlash, even, to our contemporary era of Facebook overshare. Having let our collective, digital guard down so completely that privacy has become a joke, the last frontier of self-containment - our bodies - is the place we've put up a stop sign. No. You can see everything else about me, but you can't see this.

One last note on the scenic qualities of Her. Besides being thrilled by how many familiar sights I identified in the film (which was shot largely in my neighborhood, in places I walk Chaucer almost daily), I loved the way in which it uses vertical space. Theodore's apartment is located on the upper level of a high rise, a physical counterpoint to the lows of his emotional life. Many scenes take place in the elevator at his workplace, emphasizing the intense ups and downs he's experiencing in his romantic life and even, I think, subtly reminding us that control over those ups and downs rests in the technological realm. He punches a button, and he goes up. He punches another, and he goes down...and so it is that with the entering of certain keystrokes (both actual, in his case, and metaphysically, in hers), Theodore's relationship with Samantha approaches new highs, or plummets to unanticipated depths.


When Theodore installs the operating system he eventually falls in love with, the very first decision she makes (that is, the first computational calculation that it makes) is what to name herself. The scene is handled with such grace and sweetness that as I watched it, it didn't even dawn on me how befitting and natural a first choice this is. But it couldn't be more so, because that's exactly how we commemorate a new life, after all - by naming it. In allowing Samantha to dictate this very essential aspect of her own "birth", we are being shown, right off the bat, precisely who the greater intelligence is. And yet her immaturity (in terms of human qualities) and youthfulness is reinforced by the playfulness she exhibits with Theodore, engaging like a teenager in his gaming sessions and even sending him a childishly crude drawing.

Yet despite her stumbling beginnings, Samantha's emotional growth speeds up exponentially, in ways that are initially exciting to both her and Theodore, then troubling, then ultimately destructive to their relationship. And this is where, in my opinion, we stand to learn the most from Her. Because in spite of her vastly superior abilities of cognition, the one thing she cannot learn on her own is how to love. Samantha has what is probably best line of the film: "I don't know if my emotions are real or if they're just programming." With the amount of time and energy we invest in our online lives, one can't help but shudder at her prophetic words. Because at what point do we cease to feel actual emotions, when our interactions with one another become more and more removed? At what point do those emotions become facsimiles of emotion - emoji-laden autoresponses to memes, to "trending topics", to the #hashtags we categorize our life experiences with, in order to make them relatable to the strangers we share them with? Am I actually smiling, when I send a smiley face into the ether(net)? Am I actually laughing, when I type L-O-L?

Not always.

Theodore's budding human-OS romance is, in may ways, an inversion of his dying human-human one (i.e., his divorce). In one of my favorite moments from the film, he describes to Samantha what his marriage was like. He explains that his wife and he created a space where they were safe to try new things, and to fail (and safe, therefore, to learn) But failure does not compute in Samantha's world. There are only 0s and 1s, to be configured and reconfigured in ways that will move her beyond Theodore's understanding, and beyond his reach. So despite her being the more evolved entity, and despite the fact that theoretically, she should be able to program herself to emotional perfection - ultimately, she is useless to Theodore. Because as a human being, his greatest lessons are learned through human failings. In a way, his failed marriage taught him more than Samantha ever could, since in his ex-wife was reflected another set of human shortcomings - of flawed humanity. In Samantha is only reflected an idealized version of his hopes and dreams; artificial software that is calibrated to meet his logistical needs, but cannot, at the end of the day, meet his emotional ones.