Her: The Power of the Spoken Word

by Lilly Gelman

Her, directed, written, and produced by Academy Award winner Spike Jonze, follows the story of Theodore Twombly—played by Joaquin Phoenix. Set in the near future, the film begins with Theo hard at work as a heartfelt letter writer for those who, in the technological times, do not have the nuance to write notes themselves. Sooner rather than later, the film reveals that Theo, while writing meaningful love letters for his clients, cannot keep his personal romantic life on track. In his lonely stupor over his impending divorce, Theo purchases a new Operating System, or OS, named Samantha—voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The OS, like Siri and the Amazon Alexa, plays music, reads emails, and sets alarms and reminders. Samantha, however, lacks the robotic vocal tendencies of the technological assistants we have today. Samantha sounds like a Samantha should sound. She places humanistic inflections on her words, responding with emotion or sarcasm instead of a straightforward monotone. Theo grows quite comfortable with Samantha, and in a matter of days begins to interact with her as if she were a close friend. Their conversations become more than simple requests and responses; Theo and Samantha share thoughts and emotions, making conversation with one another and building a friendship until eventually their mutual romantic feelings come to light.

While watching this film, one cannot help but question if the emotions Samantha feels fall into the category of authenticity considering the fact that computer programmers designed her entire being. To remain within the scope of this article, however, let us presume that Samantha’s emotions prove genuine despite her technological existence. We will work under the assumption that Theo and Samantha’s relationship compares to the bona fide bond between anyone and their significant other. Nevertheless, their romance remains unique because of its foundation based on a spoken connection. Films portray love stories through visuals and images as much as, or even more than, dialogue. In Her, however, due to the fact that Samantha has no physical body, the foundation of Theo and Samantha’s relationship consists entirely of the bond created by their conversations and the verbal expression of their feelings.

When comparing Her to other films following a couple, one notes the differences in the scenes which move the plot and relationship forward. In classic romance movies and romantic-comedies, the character’s body language hints to the inevitable hookup. Subtle flirting, coy laughter, passionate first kisses, and eventual cleverly-cut sex scenes illustrate the progress in the relationship and the strengthening of the connection between the characters. Similarly, if the relationship begins to head south, the audience can pick up on clues such as a recoil of a hand, or a larger physical distance between the couple to symbolize their growing apart emotionally. Granted, often romantically infused dialogue accompanies these visual clues, but the physical actions place a greater emphasis on the progress in the plot and the relationship.

Her follows an entirely new structure. While Theo displays the state of his emotions through body language, the figureless Samantha does not, compelling the audience to deduce her feelings from the dialogue alone. Spike Jonze, however, left no difficult task for the audience. The detailed and nuanced writing and acting in Her allows the entire romantic journey to demonstrate itself solely through the spoken word. Scarlett Johansson received high praise for her role as Samantha, and Spike Jonze won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. His insinuating dialogue and Johansson’s revealing vocal intonations inform the audience — subtly, yet clearly— of the characters’ deep and developing feelings for one another.

The significant role the spoken word plays in the film, mainly in Samantha and Theo’s relationship, clearly expresses itself when they first make love. While throughout the film, the audience normally has Theo as a visual aid to illustrate the sentiments of the scene, the sex scene has nothing but an empty black screen to accompany the intimate words shared between Theo and Samantha. The unaided auditory stimulus frames the depth of their feelings for each other, portraying the extent of their passions.

This scene contrasts with an earlier sex scene. Before Theodore and Samantha “meet,” Theo seeks solace from his loneliness by engaging in verbal sex with an online stranger. In this scene, however, Theo appears noticeably less engaged with this woman than with Samantha later in the film. Despite Samantha and this online stranger both manifesting themselves as voices in an earpiece, the exclusive connection Theo and Samantha made through their previous interactions amplifies the rest of their passions and feelings for each other. Samantha and Theo created a uniquely deep bond—one focused on the true relationship founded on their words, unrepeatable and unsatisfiable by another.

Towards the end of the film Samantha, filled with shame and guilt over her lack of physical presence, hires a woman to act as a physical manifestation of herself, providing a voiceover as this woman interacts with Theo in person. Her plan backfires, however, as Theo feels uncomfortable with a woman he intellectually recognizes as other than Samantha.  He knows Samantha as she exists in her OS form, and the deep-rooted relationship they built through her words alone leaves Theo unable to physically connect with another woman. Through solely their dialogue, Samantha and Theo created the type of bond seen in relationships between two people. Despite their lack of bodily connection, Theo and Samantha were able to develop romantic interest and maybe even love.

Regardless of its happy beginning, Samantha and Theo’s relationship proves unsuccessful in the end, opening up countless questions pertaining to its authenticity and legitimacy. Nevertheless, a broader message proclaims itself throughout the film. Showcasing the importance of a clear verbal connection in relationships, Theo and Samantha’s love exemplifies an aspect of everyday connections that, whether or not we notice, often acts as the defining factor in relationships—both romantic and otherwise. Samantha’s figureless presence yields the verbal connection a necessity for her and Theo. People’s ability to physically connect, however, does not diminish the crucial role honest words play in a relationship.

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