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08 September 2014

Created for connection

Created for connection

by Holly Price, Damaris

Never has a generation had more opportunity to connect with people, and yet we millennials are as well-known for our detachment from society as we are for our attachment to social networks. In his unique drama Her, set in a not-too-distant future, Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, 1999; Adaptation, 2002) asks how a connection fixated culture can isolate its population.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is well-acquainted with faux forms of intimacy. He writes for a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, creating personalised love letters on behalf of clients. Away from the office, he (like everyone else) lives in a technological cocoon, using an earpiece and mobile device that provides entertainment and communication. At home, he shares banter with characters in virtual games and has cybersex with strangers he 'meets' in chatrooms.

Amid the final throes of a divorce, a lonely Theodore makes an impulse buy: a new piece of computer software. When he downloads this artificially intelligent operating system (OS), he chooses a female voice and, after a brief series of questions, a tailor-made OS says: "Hello, I'm here" (in Scarlett Johansson's vivacious tones).

Samantha – as the OS names herself – is designed to evolve to better serve Theodore. She begins by deftly managing all of his administrative needs. Then she moves on to analysing the intonation of his voice and the contents of his inbox to discern further, deeper needs. The scope of their conversations expands, inspired by Samantha's fresh view of the world.

When Samantha asks about Theodore's marriage, he says: "There's something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody." She replies: "What does it mean to share your life with somebody?" As man and OS develop feelings for one another, they attempt to share every thought.

Theodore even puts his mobile in his breast pocket, so that Samantha can walk with him and can see what he sees. Samantha is constantly available to him and she seems to completely understand him. But, are her feelings real or just programming? And what will happen when she evolves beyond the remit of Theodore's personal assistant? Precocious software isn't the only complication;the eminently human neuroses that ended Theodore's marriage creep into this romance as well. "I think I hid myself from her," he explains of his ex-wife, "left her alone in the relationship."

The concept of never truly being known was crucial to Jonze's vision for this film. He told The Independent: "To have an intimate relationship with somebody [requires] a leap of faith. Even after years you don't really ever know how they see or think about the world." What makes us hide ourselves from the people we love? If we are anything like Theodore, fear keeps us from committing to sharing our lives with them in earnest. We fear that they might not understand or approve of our vantage point. We fear that they might outgrow us, or that we might outgrow them. We fear that revealing all our secrets might leave us all alone.

Technology can be our defence mechanism. Always available, we need never feel bereft of company. "Hello, I'm here," chirrups our mobile, ready to meet our every need, anywhere. In our online communities, we can personalise our profiles or avatars to show only the best version of ourselves. We touch base with the many by commenting on their photos, rather than genuinely engaging with the few. This is not to say that social media can't be a community enhancing tool, or provide an introduction that develops into a real relationship. But, those of us looking online for intimacy – to truly know someone and be known by them – are likely to find a counterfeit.

Early on in the film, Theodore goes on a blind date. He confides in Samantha afterwards, that he'd thought, "maybe [a one-night stand] would fill this tiny little hole inside me, but probably not". Might we be able to speak into the emptiness caused by counterfeit loves, redirecting people to the only one who can meet our deepest need? Theodore's only real friend Amy (Amy Adams) tells him: "We are only here briefly. And while we're here, I want to allow myself joy." We have a gospel that can fill the void with the joy of being completely known and completely loved.

How do we deliver this message to this millennial generation? Paul's Thessalonian approach can still speak volumes: "Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well" (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Her is out now on DVD. 

Holly Price is a writer with Damaris, which provides free resources for Damaris Film Clubs as well as the Damaris Film Blog. See damaris.org/filmclubs and damaris.org/filmblog.

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