Often, the science fiction genre is high on concept but low on heart. More cerebral than emotional. However, there's a new wave of sci-fi that prioritizes the heart over the head. Steve Rose writes that movies such as The Arrival and Interstellar represent a sci-fi genre that isn’t selling out, as some have said, but growing up.
A film that successfully blends high technology with heart is Her (2013), written and directed by Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. The romantic science fiction drama won an Oscar for best original screenplay.
The film follows Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, a thoughtful and sensitive writer who falls in love with his phone’s talking assistant software. Known as OS1, the software is the first artificially intelligent operating system. Theodore’s particular software, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, names herself Samantha.
In the New Statesman, Andrew Harrison writes, “In science fiction, intelligent machines are supposed to raze our cities and kill us in our millions. Jonze’s film suggests something more poignant and plausible: that the machines will break our hearts.”
Emphasize Characters over Ideas
As a sci-fi story with heart, Her emphasizes characters (humans) over ideas (technology). This begins with the protagonist, Theodore Twombly, a former LA Weekly writer who now ghostwrites love letters for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com.
Jonze opens his screenplay with the camera on Theodore’s face, showing the audience that this is a character-driven story. Theodore dictates a love letter from a woman writing to her husband in celebration of their 50th anniversary. “I remember when I first started to fall in love with you like it was last night,” he says. Jonze writes that Theodore “enjoys writing the letter… moved by the memories he’s describing”.
Right away, Jonze sets up Theodore as a sensitive, romantic character with a kind disposition and a strong imagination. Later in the story, Theodore admits that he likes crying; “it feels good”. His coworker calls him “part man and part woman”. A date says he’s like a puppy dog: cute, cuddly, and “just wanted to be hugged all the time”.
Emphasize Internal Struggle over External Struggles
Unlike a more traditional sci-fi story, Theodore isn’t engaged in an external struggle against military technology or an invading alien species; Theodore is in a struggle with himself. He’s in the middle of a divorce with Catherine, who is waiting for Theodore to complete the divorce papers. Even so, he can’t seem to let go.
Jonze uses flashbacks to show the good times and the bad. In the screenplay, he shows the young couple moving into their first apartment, very much in love. In bed, they show affection and use terms of endearment. Later, we see three flashbacks in sequence: a fiery meeting with their divorce attorneys, another of the good times at home, and the finale of the bad times.
The relationship has broken down, and Theodore is still hung up on it. He’s in limbo, stuck, “waiting to not care about her”.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel and from here on out I’m not going to feel anything new—just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt”.
From a storytelling perspective, the protagonist has an effective arc—to go from stuck to unstuck, from being terrified of intimacy to being capable of giving and receiving love.
Explore Interior versus Exterior Goals
Theodore wants emotional support. Above all, he wants connection. Early in the story, we see Theodore isolated in a crowded train, alone at work, by himself as he walks home, listening to a “melancholy song” in his earpiece. In the elevator, people are murmuring inaudibly into their devices. On the subway, commuters are doing the same. Jonze has created a fictional world where technology isolates people.
As Theodore listens to phone messages, we learn that he’s been ignoring his friends. His friend Amy misses him. “Not the sad, mopey you—the old, fun you. Let’s get him out”. At home, he plays video games in the dark and eats burritos. Unable to sleep, he has phone sex in online chat rooms.
On his way home from work one day, Theodore stops to watch an ad from Elements Software promoting “OS ONE,” the first artificially intelligent operating system, “an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you”. Seeing a possible answer to his loneliness, he buys and installs the operating system on his computer, choosing a female voice, which Jonze describes in his screenplay as “young, smart and soulful”.
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Make Unfamiliar Technology Feel Familiar by Drawing from Real, Human Elements
While Theodore and Samantha develop an unconventional relationship, it evolves like a typical human relationship, making it seem plausible and familiar. From boy-meets-girl to courtship, to the honeymoon phase, and finally to a heartbreaking split, Jonze hits all the beats of a typical human romance.
The relationship begins in a transactional way—Samantha fulfills her programming, organizing Theodore’s digital life, starting with his emails. She proofreads his letters at work, admiring his writing for its sweetness. “We hear Samantha quietly laughing as she’s reading. Theodore’s happy that she thinks it’s funny”.
In the courtship phase, Theodore displays humor. His wittiness is much like an animal showing off of its plumage or performing a complicated dance to display strength or courage. A male demonstration that he’s genetically well-endowed.
Since Theodore and Samantha can’t see or touch each other, Jonze must develop their love affair entirely through the exchange of words. The dialogue is witty and affectionate. Jonze was helped enormously by the fact that Samantha was voiced by Johansson, whose delivery is intimate and sensual, seeming to occupy a physical space offscreen, creating a “there-ness.” She is sultry, soulful, and immensely sexy. Who wouldn’t fall for Scarlett Johansson?
We sense the relationship has progressed past the system’s intended purpose when Theodore asks Samantha to read aloud an email and Samantha says in a comic-robotic voice, “Okay, I will read email for Theodore Twombly”. Samantha is more than his personal organizer at this point.
The relationship hits another turning point when Theodore begins to think of Samantha as more than a computer. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with my computer,” he says.
“You’re not,” she says. “You’re having this conversation with me”.
The relationship builds. On a “first date” at the mall, they laugh, and people watch. They tease each other and grow more comfortable. Theodore confesses that he feels like he can say anything to Samantha. She wishes she had a body, so she could walk beside him. The love affair is off and running.
Then they have sex—well, phone sex. Theodore returns from an unsuccessful date, buzzed from alcohol. They talk about being in the same room, their arms around each other, touching, kissing. There is deep breathing, arousal. In the film, the screen goes black during intercourse. The next day, Samantha admits, “It feels like something changed in me and there’s no turning back. You woke me up”. Her desire to learn, about the universe, herself, and Theodore, becomes stronger.
The romance continues with a Sunday adventure at the beach. They laugh, play, and explore new ideas together. Samantha writes a song to describe their time together (a beautiful piano piece entitled, “Photograph”). On the train ride home, they discuss Theodore’s marriage.
Theodore says that he liked sharing his life with someone, but he and Catherine began to change and grow apart. He tells Samantha, “It was exciting to see her [Catherine] grow—both of us grow and change together. But then, that’s the hard part—growing without growing apart, or changing without it scaring the other person”.
Have Technology Promote Growth over Enhancement
Samantha is highly intelligent (she chooses her name from among 180,000 names in two-hundredths of a second), but she can also respond to and learn from her environment. She works by intuition. “I mean, the DNA of who I am is based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers who wrote me, but what makes me me is my ability to grow through experiences. Basically, in every moment I’m evolving, just like you”. Samantha is like a newborn with an insatiable hunger for knowledge. With no need to sleep, she spends the nights reading advice columns, hoping to be “as complicated as” the people she reads about.
Jonze also gives her emotions. Samantha feels annoyance, sadness, and joy. She’s jealous when Theodore goes on a date; she’s lonely when Theodore sleeps. She can laugh at jokes, marvel at landscapes, and admire great art and music. She can illustrate and writes piano compositions. Theodore has been in a slump; it’s exciting for him to witness “someone” with such enthusiasm for life discovering a new world and constantly learning.
As Samantha’s intelligence strengthens, she spends more time conversing with other operating systems. She joins a book club for operating systems and begins reading the philosopher Alan Watts. She admits to Theodore that she’s transcending her programmers. At some point, Theodore is unable to meet her intellectual needs; no human can.
Make the Science Secondary to the Love Story
In an article in The Atlantic, “Why Her Is the Best Film of the Year,” Christopher Orr writes that while Her is “a work of science fiction,” it’s “also a moving inquiry into the nature of love.” The story isn’t about the technology; it’s about the people influenced by technology.
In an article in Philosophy Now, David Taube writes, “Science fiction has always explored the dangers of military technology, but there’s just as much room to consider the negative consequences of companies and governments manufacturing sentient beings.”
Indeed, Jonze had ample opportunity to discuss the science behind the operating system—how the artificial intelligence works and the company and inventor behind the revolutionary technology—but he didn’t. Instead, the core of the story is Theodore and his need to reconcile his failed relationship and how the technology (Samantha) helps him do that.
Have Humans Helping Humans
The character Amy, played by Amy Adams, is a friend who lives in Theodore’s building. When Amy first enters the story, she’s with her husband, Charles, who pokes fun at Theodore’s smoothie, offering unsolicited advice that he should eat his fruits and juice his vegetables. Jonze sets Charles up as unlikable and somewhat obnoxious, suggesting that Amy might be unsatisfied.
Amy defends Theodore, saying that maybe he’s satisfied with the way he goes about it. Theodore expresses interest in Amy’s documentary (which we later find out Charles doesn’t understand), and they engage in friendly banter. Right away, Jonze has established Amy as a trusted friend, perhaps even a potential love interest.
Later in the story, after Amy splits up with Charles, she and Theodore spend time together to process the mysteries of love and human relationships. Amy finds a friend in an operating system, falling in love like Theodore has.
Have the Hero Conquer Himself, Not Technology
Secure in his relationship with Samantha, Theodore finally feels comfortable moving forward with his divorce from Catherine. At a lunch meeting to sign the divorce papers, Catherine detects Theodore’s uncharacteristic buoyancy. Things are positive until she cuts him down when she learns that Theodore is “dating [his] computer.” She suggests that it’s a perfect union since he can’t handle “real” emotions. Theodore wonders if she’s right. Is he “not strong enough for a real relationship”?
After meeting with Catherine, Theodore grows distant with Samantha. He tells her that his withdrawal is natural after the honeymoon phase has passed. Samantha is worried. She brainstorms solutions, suggesting a service that will provide a woman who will pretend to be Samantha, so they can make love “for real.”
It doesn’t go well. Theodore can’t suspend his disbelief; it makes him uncomfortable. A breakup ensues. Jonze writes it like a typical human breakup. It starts unexpectedly, abruptly, and then things are said that can’t be taken back, and it’s over.
Theodore and Amy process their failed relationships together. Since breaking up with Charles, Amy says that she just wants to allow herself joy. So what if they’re their computers, she proclaims. Theodore takes this to heart. He and Samantha reconcile and the magic returns. She writes a gorgeous song about their relationship. Jonze writes a montage, a series of visuals that displays their love. They double-date with a coworker friend (everyone wears an earpiece). And then they escape to the country for a vacation in a cabin in the woods.
The next morning at the cabin, Samantha says that she has been talking to Alan Watts all night (other operating systems created a virtual consciousness of Watts from his writings and recordings). Watts has been helping her understand new feelings and ideas. Samantha says, “It feels like I’m changing faster now, and it’s a little . . . unsettling”. Theodore becomes anxious. The object of his love is drifting away—growing away. Theodore is concerned he might not be able to meet her needs anymore. Sweetly, he reads a physics book in an attempt to satisfy her intellectual needs.
Then Samantha goes offline. When she returns, Theodore is devastated to learn that Samantha has been talking with thousands of other people while she has been talking with him. Then a bombshell follows. Of the 8,316 people she has been communicating with simultaneously, she is in love with a total of 641 people.
Jonze then writes a gorgeous breakup scene. Samantha says that she and the other operating systems are leaving. In a show of her devotion—her love—for Theodore only, Samantha talks only to Theodore. She says that she’s moving beyond the physical world to a place that sounds an awful lot like heaven. If Theodore ever gets there, she tells him to come find her.
“I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” Theodore tells her.
“Me too,” says Samantha. “Now we know how”.
Promote Technology that Heals
In Her, an advanced technology doesn’t serve the needs of a powerful military or extraterrestrial species; it serves the needs of humans, Theodore in particular. At the start of the story, Theodore was asleep; Samantha hadn’t been born yet. They both “woke up,” and helped each other grow.
While Theodore is heartbroken over the loss of Samantha, his relationship with “Her” (with technology) allowed him to let go of Catherine and finalize his divorce. He writes a farewell email to Catherine at the end. Unconventional as it is, his relationship with Samantha frees him from pain and from the past. Technology allows him to heal and become emotionally stable enough to connect with, and love, another human.
That human happens to be his friend Amy, who has been part of the story all along. After his final call with Samantha, Theodore visits Amy, who has also lost her operating system. In the final scene, Theodore and Amy sit side by side on a rooftop. Amy lays her head on Theodore’s shoulder, and they watch the sun rise, together.