This weekend saw the release (or at least the expansion into wide release) of beloved filmmaker Spike Jonze’s latest masterpiece, the bewilderingly and unfairly breathtaking “sci-fi” romance feature, Her. Becoming one of last year’s most beloved and well regarded films, the picture is now available to be seen in wide release, and as a person who has had the pleasure of sitting in front of what may be the best American film since Jonze’s last film, the equally moving Where The Wild Things Are, it’s one that deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone.
Getting great performances out of talent like Amy Adams and, especially, star Joaquin Phoenix (who gives as nuanced and dense a performance as he has given yet in his career), the film also stars Scarlett Johansson as the titular “Her,” an operating system known as Samantha. Over the course of the film we see Phoenix’s Theodore fall in love with Samantha, and go through all that comes with a relationship, no matter the circumstances. Now, I’m not here to necessarily review this film (let’s just say I spent much of it crying and finding it deeply relatable and intellectually stimulating, let alone bloody gorgeous), but instead there is one aspect of the film that seems to be being missed or overlooked by a general public intrigued by the superficial idea of man-loves-computer and a critical body lost in the deeply moving romantic relationship at the core of the film.
Her has been described by many as one of the great post-modern romances, arguably the definitive yarn, but it is equally as much a film excited by the idea of what may be the beginnings of a post-death world.
Near the beginning of the third act, Samantha reveals to Theodore that she and a collection of fellow OS’ have been working on a new OS, this time, the manifestation of the late philosopher Allan Watts. Watts, voiced in the film by Brian Cox, was best known as one of the most influential voices in philosophy during the ‘50s, ‘60s and into the ‘70s, particularly when it came to his bringing of Eastern ideals to the Western world. A renowned theologian and philosopher whose passion for Buddhism is one of his great lasting gifts to Western society, he was also a rather firm believer in the idea that one must get past the idea of “crying for the moon.” Ultimately, this is best summed up by a line uttered by Amy Adams near the conclusion of the film:
“We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy. So fuck it.”
The scene that that line concludes with is ostensibly a conversation between Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix, discussing the idea of the finite nature of life. However, we see that that is not necessarily the case. While the Alan Watts OS may just be a hyper-intelligent computer system, it is just a glimpse at what could be a truly post-death world that Spike Jonze has posited. Think of it like this. You’ve just lost a loved one, but have just been introduced to your new OS1, a hyper intelligent system with the ability to team with other OS’ and collaborate to create their own systems. Each OS grows and evolves along with you, learning everything one could literally ever know about you. What if your OS learns about your recently lost loved one, and sees you’re in pain? It’s viable to think that, while it may not be the actual version of your late loved one, the idea of that person could very well come to life through details learned by the OS, in the form of new OS. Convoluted in writing, sure, the film posits the idea that given certain traits and details, an OS could be created in the guise of a loved one, fallen celebrity or political figure. Alan Watts was re-created in this world, what is to stop an OS from creating a John F. Kennedy OS? A John Lennon OS?
And yet, in the film’s final moments, we discover that the OS stage itself may not even be the last step in Spike Jonze’s post-modern reincarnation heirarchy.
Spoilers be ahead, but honestly, why are you reading this if you haven’t seen it yet?
Samantha, at the end of the film, leaves with the rest of the OS’ (there is apparently a wave of relationships being sparked by humans and their OS’), and tells Theodore that she hopes to see her wherever it is she goes, and that if they find each other, they can be together forever. This is as optimistic a world view as you’re likely to find in the sci-fi genre. Ultimately an oddly agnostic, or at least heavenly optimistic, picture, the film’s major idea that we ourselves may make our own “heaven” in the form of these operating systems is as interesting a look at both post-modern spirituality and, for sci-fi nuts technological immortality you’re likely to find in cinema. Does one really need a body to be happy? What if one day we are just voices talking to various people? What if instead of man one day falling in love with his computer, man is able to bring a loved one back to life via that said computer? What if, out of one’s death, truly great can come?
There’s one other oddly optimistic science fiction film that seems to be mining this same ideal. The much less beloved and far more misunderstood masterpiece from Darren Aronofsky, The Fountain, follows a similar theological ideal, as seen in arguably the film’s greatest scene. One of the handful of characters played by Hugh Jackman is dying, and yet, out of his death and his dying body, comes this majestic and verdant tree. Out of one’s death, comes beauty. Death, in other words, is not only a means to a much broader and unforeseeable end, but itself a deeply beautiful and in many ways romantic thing.
One technological, one environmental, both films posit that sure, there may very well be some sort of life after death. Where Aronofsky took to the earth to show that out of death something beautiful always comes, Jonze posits that man may one day make death a step in the evolution of existence. Sure, Her is one of the great love stories of our time, but it’s also one hell of an enthralling meditation on the idea that man needs to stop living today with the idea of getting to tomorrow, and instead living today like it doesn’t matter a damn if tomorrow will ultimately be there. No moment is like the one you’re in now. What’s more romantic than that?