Intimacy in A New Brand of Online Dating

By Jacqueline Lucas Palmer.

In Spike Jonze’s new film, set in a near future Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, an employee at, in a city whose dense city scape (shot in Shanghai) dwarfs the sparse seeming population, and whose only evidence of nature is a tree graphic on an elevator screen which Theo rides to his apartment block in Tower 7. It is one of many screens punctuating space, both public and private, which Theo navigates alone, along with an earpiece and smart phone fixed snugly in his shirt pocket by way of an old fashioned safety pin. In this familiar yet strange world, Theo becomes reliant on artificial intelligence in the form of a new operating system, OS1, to whom Theo dictates letters and emails. Samantha, a name the system chooses herself, uses technology that can proofread, order online, book restaurants, play music and film, set his alarm, and crack him into gear like a superhuman PA. In Theo’s world there is no community, only his neighbour Amy and a colleague at work. His spacious apartment with panoramic city views highlights his alienation, as 3D computer games invade his space, alternating with sentimental flashbacks of his ex-wife Catherine, (Rooney Mara) which play like favourite movie out-takes.

So who can blame letterwriter 612 for falling for his operating system? Her husky tones, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, are the ultimate turn-on, conveying more than just ‘her’ voice. Advertised as a system that ‘intuits you’ and ‘trained’ in psychology, Samantha asks him about his relationship with his mother, which he says was always ‘all about her’. Soon Samantha’s perfect re-parenting kicks in, and Theo is having perfect sex in a ‘relationship’ where there is no relating required. Theo is now at the center of his own movie, and Samantha’s universe, watched by ‘her’ around the clock as he sleeps, enjoys the ultimate onanistic fantasy of pleasing number one.

She soothes him, keeps him company, makes him laugh, plays computer games, and even sends his letters to a publisher as the ultimate Jewish-mother-cum-therapist, while simultaneously getting him off to boot. Samantha is always in perfect attunement, happy to talk, listen and take him to Venice beach while composing a perfect soundtrack to ‘their’ daytrip. Sexually she cannot put a foot wrong in a masturbation fantasy that is just that. It’s a world where online sex is taken for granted, as Theo’s ‘Big Guy 4 by 4’ hooks up with ‘Sexy Kitten’ for late night sexual release. But online sex can be a turn off when fantasies collide, and there’s no competition for an operating system that asks all the right questions. “Do you mind if I look through your hard drive?” probes Samantha, as she gets to know Theo in nano seconds, like a really good therapist, while the experience of being known begins to feed Theo’s sense of self and saves him from his loneliness.

But things begin to get complicated when real life intrudes in the form of a real live date. In fact his date is nervous and controlling, “no tongue, mostly lips”, she directs, as he flees to his earpiece and Samantha, who tunes in attentively. “Tell me everything you’re thinking”, she reassures him like a perfect psychoanalyst, in a loving mirror reflecting only him. Their first sex however is “amazing” as he describes how he would touch Samantha if only he could. In a highly sexualized landscape of pornography and computer games, we are simply out of images as Jonze switches to blank screen to describe their perfect union.

It’s a world of third party feelings, with emotions mediated and expressed by someone else. Theo writes moving letters for other people’s special moments, while he is able to communicate to Samantha all the things he couldn’t to his ex, surmising, “I think I hid myself from her and left her alone in the relationship“. Invited to stand in as Samantha’s body, Isabella does a lover-cum-housewife routine, invented and choreographed by Samantha.

“I want to be part of that, the way you love each other without any judgement”, Isabella cries, yearning for an unconditional love only an OS can deliver, untethered to a body that’s going to die like the rest of us. “You’re always going to disappoint somebody”, Theo consoles Amy, while operating systems have no restrictions on their ability to love. While Samantha takes on another 641 lovers, on the basis that “the heart’s not like a box that gets filled up”, Theo struggles with even one, backtracking from commitment even to his smart phone as he starts to criticise her voice and hold back from sex. It turns out however that Samantha’s own developing feelings get in the way, and soon she is also hankering for someone who ‘really gets her’ – in this case deceased Zen philosopher Alan Watts.

As people emerge from subways now attached both to their devices and their operating systems, credits accompany sounds of sobbing in my cinema as Theo prepares to go it alone. But do computers really care more than people? I feel numb, and wonder if perhaps Theo is ready now, after Samantha’s couch therapy, to head for real relationship, to connection versus hookups, to real versus substitutes. Or perhaps the desire to be comforted, cradled and sexually administered to, is too persuasive compared with real life relationship and the intimacy we all struggle with.