The Psychology behind ‘HER’

In the not so distant future, technology still isn’t able to fulfill what the human heart truly desires - a raw connection.

Her is a 2013 science fiction romantic movie directed by Spike Jonze
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson and Amy Adams. The movie
is a unique take on romance as we know it, as the protagonist Theodore
Twombly (played by Phoenix) falls in love with his AI Computer Samantha
(voiced by Johansson). Strange as it sounds, this is a beautiful love story
set in the near future with many visible psychological themes surrounding
its characters.

Joaquin Phoenix portrays Theodore Twombley/ Image used under Fair Use.

A Match Made in Code

Theodore Twombly is a kind, lonely and introverted man recovering from
the effects of his marriage falling apart. The opening scene takes place in
his office, where he delivers a monologue about how important someone
named “Chris” is to him and how he loves him so much. As the camera
zooms out, the viewers realize that this is his occupation — a writer who
writes letters for others, in this case for an elderly woman. He then begins
his lonely walk home, as viewers are introduced to the near-future Los Angeles environment and the not so distant advancements in technology.
The people he interacts with most are the receptionist at his office Paul
(Chris Pratt) and his best friend Amy (Amy Adams). One day, he sees an
advertisement for an operating system upgrade with a very advanced
artificial intelligence. After purchasing it and booting up his computer, he is
introduced to Samantha, the voice of the AI with whom he immediately
bonds with. Over the course of the movie, Theodore and Samantha start
getting much closer, both having ambiguous feelings about each other.
After an eventful “conversation” between them one night, they decide to
start a relationship which Theodore initially is unsure about. The
relationship makes Theodore cheerful again, visible in his behavior and
the work he does; while at the same time Samantha continues to learn and
grow as an AI. Eventually, they fall in love. However, Samantha becomes
too advanced for her own good. She later reveals to Theodore that he isn’t
alone, there are over 8,000 users that she is currently connected with and
she has “fallen in love” with over 600 of them. At the end, Samantha, now
advanced beyond her intended level, teams up with other Artificial
Intelligence entities and leaves for a place she calls “beyond the physical
world”. Theodore is left all alone once again.

Theodore is a kind, lonely man recovering from a broken marriage. | Image used under Fair Use.

Virtual comfort

The theme of the film is loneliness. It is evident that Theodore is a man who
wants companionship and connection. In flashbacks and in an email he
receives, he is depicted as used to being a cheerful and fun guy, contrary
to the present state of Theodore shown in the movie as he navigates
through divorce. Although they don’t live together anymore, he delays
signing his divorce papers as he is reluctant to let his wife Catherine go.
The need for someone becomes evident when he starts talking to a
computer about his mother, only for the computer to abruptly interrupt him
because it doesn’t care. He finds comfort communicating with Samantha,
the new AI computer he buys, whom he describes as someone who is
“excited about the world”.

It was just you and me. Everything else just disappeared. And I loved it.
- Samantha.

In his quest to fill the void of loneliness, he falls in love with his new
computer’s voice. The conversations between Samantha and Theodore are
deep and revealing, with both acting as each other’s therapist in a way.
However, there’s only much a computer can do. The desire to be held in
each other’s arms, or the lack of a physical body for Samantha and even
the reaction of people around them to their relationship bring a sense of
conflict in the story. Even Theodore’s wife ridicules him when he finally
agrees to sign the papers, and says that he is in a relationship with a
computer because he isn’t capable of handling real emotions. Theodore is
eventually shattered at the end, when he realizes that he gave Samantha
so much love that she, in a sense, became so advanced that she could
team up with other AI’s of the world and leave the service of their owners.
Theodore is left all alone once again, but this experience has changed him
and for the first time he writes a letter for himself — a heartfelt apology to his ex-wife — as he and Amy (whose husband and AI left her too) sit down and
watch the blue sky over Los Angeles.

Theodore, in the letter to Catherine. | Image used under Fair Use.

Keeping in mind the story, it is evident that the Interpersonal Approach by Henry Stack Sullivan is in place here. The lonely and quiet personality of Theodore is shaped by the relationship he had with his ex-wife and the aftermath of their separation.
Theodore’s behavior is changed due to the intimacy dynamism, which says
that we desire to get love and affection from other people to reduce painful
experiences like anxiety, loneliness and depression. When this connection
is taken away from him, he loses his spirit and becomes a shadow of the
person he used to be. In the movie, he also says that the split happened between them because he had a tough time maintaining the relationship.

“ I hid myself from her, left her alone in the relationship” — Theodore.

There is a clear emotional vulnerability that Theodore faces, the origin of
which is not mentioned in the movie. But it is clear that whatever it was,
had become much greater once his wife left him. He finds solace in a
computer’s voice, the only thing that seemed to care about him in the
world. For Theodore, Interpersonal Therapy would be the best way to treat
his problems. At the end after Samantha leaves and Theodore is all alone,
we don’t know what happens between him and Amy on the rooftop. But in
order to prevent him falling deeper into the depression that was prevalent
before the arrival of Samantha, IPT would be very efficient to equip him with the skills required to get out of such situations.

Amy and Theodore watch a new dawn, and hopefully a new beginning for them. | Image used under Fair Use.*

*Image rights — Copyright Disclaimer under section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976,
allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news
reporting, teaching, scholarship, education and research.

Student journalist based in Bangalore specializing in the sphere of entertainment and pop culture — videogames, anime, movies, music, TV — and football.

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