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“Her” – A Couples Therapist at the Movies

Spoiler alert: this may not be much of a review, and could negatively affect your impression of the movie “Her” if you have not yet seen it. And there are actually some spoilers. This article is probably better read after having seen the movie. or perhaps if you do not plan to see it at all. Also a confession, which is that I dictated this article by talking to a computer, much the way Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore wrote his letters in the movie.

This article is about emotion, motivation, and relationships in human beings and some of the things we can learn (or not) through fictional depictions of humans and cyborgs. Cyborgs are defined as part human, part machine. Technically, you could say Samantha was not a cyborg because she was entirely machine-based, but I would say the attribution of emotions qualifies her as “part human.” Similarly, in Blade Runner (the 1982 dystopian cult movie directed by Ridley Scott) the “replicants” were not considered human because they were genetically engineered. However, they were imbued not only with emotion but also with memories. As with Samantha, I consider them part-human, part-engineered.

Spike Jonze said that his movie is less about technology than it is about loneliness, which is to say that it is more about emotions than machines. I’ll go along with this, despite a lot of technology – albeit dressed in retro styles – being on display in the movie. Even more than loneliness, though, the movie is about the related needs for belonging, acceptance, and emotional security.

Samantha is a sort of aural avatar of an operating system, so sophisticated that it can carry on a conversation that sounds just like a real person. Her first “Hi” really contains the whole story. Who could have done it more perfectly than Scarlett Johansson? That breathy, seductive, slightly breaking “Hi” that in one, quick inflection carries enough feeling to bring a man to his knees. As Adam Phillips cleanly states, if somebody can satisfy you, they can also frustrate you. In fact, as Phillips goes on to say, they will frustrate you – “it’s ineluctable.” So, embedded in Samantha’s lush, one-word, whispered-in-your-ear greeting are the seeds of its opposite: rejection and pain.

The confusing part is how can an operating system, so emotionally interactive that her conversation is indistinguishable from a real person (the old Turing test), know so little about how emotion works? “She” can read a book in two hundredths of a second in order to choose a name for herself, and she can be excited about having feelings, yet she doesn’t anticipate the impact of her absence on her lover after having been instantly and absolutely available 24/7 up to that point. I suppose there are bound to be contradictions in a computer that somehow has emotion, but it seems implausible to me that a machine of that sophistication would be so emotionally naïve, either in its design or implementation. On the other hand, perhaps it is an exploration of the idea that if machines have emotion, they can become as petulant as humans, as does Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” At least in “2001” HAL’s malfunctioning was a central theme integrated into the cloth of the story. To me, Samantha’s emotional naiveté was unreflected upon and unbelieveable.

In contrast, I found the depiction of cyborg emotion in “Blade Runner ” to be more coherent, subtle, and compelling than that represented in “Her.” Perhaps because they are embodied and more human-like to start with, the replicants’ expressions of sentimentality, attachment, and desire for life feel more organic. If there is any inconsistency in that movie, it is that the groomed killer replicants also have all of these softer feelings. But then these provide the provocative contrast that invites the question: are the engineered beings more human then the supposed humans?

If we drop the cyborg question and treat the interaction between Theodore and Samantha as simply human it reveals some interesting things. One of the most dramatic moments in the film is when Samantha becomes unavailable for a few minutes. This is enough to send Theodore into what therapists would refer to as an “attachment panic.” Couples therapists (and others) see this all the time: one partner is afraid of losing the other’s attention and the fear is expressed in comes out in all kinds of ways, from nagging to attacking to numbing withdrawal. “Where were you? Why didn’t you answer your phone? You said you’d be home at 8:30 and you weren’t home until 10! WTF!?!” Especially as these rifts become chronic, insufficiently repaired, and part of a cycle, they can blow relationships out of the water.

Another salient point was when Theodore was on a date with another woman played by Olivia Wilde. As things are heating up the woman says she needs someone who can commit. Theodore hesitates and the woman suddenly turns from amorous flirtation to expressing a mix of fear and disgust, calling him weird and creepy. One could say that both of their threat systems got activated: his by her sudden demand for commitment, and hers by his hesitation. Instant division.

I also found Theodore’s occupation amusing in the sense that he was an expert surrogate at telling people what they wanted to hear, and presumably was maintaining relationships by creating a fantasy correspondence between two partners. Contrary to my other examples of attachment breaches, Theodore’s job was to provide the kind of reliable reassurance and loving thoughts that secure partnerships depend on. Maybe emotional surrogacy is what the movie was really about. However, done authentically between partners, messages of the sorts that Theodore composed do contribute to security, and keep good relationships going strong

So “Her” was somewhat thought provoking and, I thought, a generally well made film. But if you want to see a really great movie, go see “American Hustle”.

Robert Solley

Robert Solley

Robert Solley earned his Ph.D. in 1988 and has been licensed over 20 years. He specializes in couples therapy, has been an associate with the Couples Institute in Menlo Park for over five years, and has an active practice in Noe Valley in San Francisco. He is also part of the Psyched in San Francisco staff of therapists.

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