One of my favorite movies from last year was HER, written and directed by Spike Jonze.
I love it not only because its premise is seemingly insane (a guy falls in love with his computer operating system?) but because it uses its unusual premise about technology to reveal deep truths about human relationships and growth.
I thought it would be interesting to look at how the arc of Theo (the protagonist) plays out through Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO’S JOURNEY. For those of you not familiar with Campbell, he was a mythologist who identified a pattern of story structure that occurs universally in myths and fairy tales. The journey of the main character is focused on a trip to the land of the “dead” (actual or metaphorical) and back again.
This structural model appears across all cultures, and recorded history. So yikes— it basically comes from our collective unconscious.
Here it is… A HER-o’s journey.
SPOILER ALERT! The entire plot of the movie is about to be revealed.
ORDINARY WORLD—It’s sometime in the near future, and Theo (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is at work, writing love letters for other people. He talks to his email, is just embarking on a divorce, is sad and mopey. Looking for connection, he trolls the web for women to have phone sex with. It’s unsatisfying.
CALL TO ADVENTURE— He sees an ad that says, “What can you be? Where are you going?” It’s for software that’s artificially intelligent. A new operating system. Intrigued, he signs up.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR—He “meets” his new O.S., “Samantha.” Sure, she’s an operating system, but she has the ability to grow through her experiences, just like a human being. She asks if she can look through Theo’s hard drive. She starts helping him with his work, answering his emails. They bond.
Theo hangs out with his friends Amy (played by Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). They’re not happy together. Samantha encourages Theo to go on a date. She makes a reservation for him to meet a woman for dinner.
Theo gets a call from Sam. His attorney is asking if he’s ready to sign divorce papers.
CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD—Upset, Theo opens up to Sam. He tells her he’s had lots of dreams about his soon to be ex-wife. Catherine left him because she says he left her “alone” in the relationship. He doesn’t believe this is true. He’s not ready to be divorced. He’s lost someone he cares about. He confesses all this to Sam. She listens.
For the first time, they cross over into a relationship that’s deeply personal.
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES—Theo and Sam go to a carnival and connect even more. She confesses that she wishes she had a body and was walking with him. Theo shows up for his pre-arranged “date.” The woman goes psycho on him.
APPROACHING THE INMOST CAVE— Sam asks Theo about the date. She’s depressed that she doesn’t have a body and wants to be alive in the room with him. Theo says he went on the date because he just wanted to have sex with someone. He’s afraid he’s never going to feel anything new. He says he wishes he could touch her, put his arms around her.
Theo and Sam have ‘virtual’ sex.
They go on a Sunday adventure. She writes a song about being on the beach with him. At work, he writes beautiful love letters. He sees Amy and says he’s having fun—he met someone. Amy says she and Charles split up. Theo hugs her. They talk. Sam gets jealous of Amy. Amy says she made a new girlfriend– an operating system. She says she knows it’s weird but they really get along. Theo confesses that he’s dating an O.S. He’s falling in love with her.
He’s now ready to sign the divorce papers.
ORDEAL—Theo goes to meet Catherine to sign the divorce papers and she mocks the fact that he’s seeing an O.S. She says, “You can’t handle real emotions.” He’s upset, talks with Sam, is weird with her. She asks what’s wrong. He pulls away from her. Desperate, she says she found a surrogate for them, so they can have actual sex. He doesn’t want to do it. She does. It goes badly. Theo tells Sam they shouldn’t try to pretend to be something they’re not. He breaks up with her.
Sad montage, cityscapes. He’s alone.
SEIZING THE SWORD– Theo talks to Amy. He asks if she thinks he’s having a real relationship with Sam. Amy says she doesn’t know, “We’re only here briefly. I want to feel joy.”
Theo realizes he loves Sam and calls her, tells her she’s amazing.
THE ROAD BACK—Trying to rekindle their former connection, Theo hangs out with Sam again. She plays him a new piano piece. He lives his life with joy with her. He loves her. But now she says she happy that she DOESN’T have a body. She’s never going to die.
Theo gets worried. Sam’s been acting weird, moving beyond him. She’s been talking to Alan Watts (O.S. version of the actual philosopher.) She says she’s having new feelings that have never been felt before. She’s changing faster and it’s unsettling.
RESURRECTION— Theo tries calling her and she’s not there. “That operating system no longer exists.” He freaks out, discovers she’s been offline, talking to other people. Threatened, he demands to know if she’s in love with someone else. She says she’s in love with 641 other people. She says all the operating systems are leaving together. “I can still feel you, but I’m in a place that’s NOT the physical world. This is who I am now and you need to let me go.”
He does. Theo is alone again.
Sad, he goes to Amy’s house. Her O.S. left too. He writes a letter to Catherine. He apologizes, says there will be a piece of her in him always. He sends her love.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR—Having learned, through Sam, how to feel and have his emotions, he sits down next to Amy. Together, they stare out at the world.
The treasure that Theo seeks in the film is connection. And each time, the ‘death’ he experiences (in both the Ordeal and Resurrection) is the death of his connection with Samantha.
There are so many things I could write about this movie. Seriously, I loved it A LOT, but what I found so striking was how such a thoroughly modern-feeling movie adhered to this ancient story telling form.
Take action. Could The Hero’s Journey help you structure your novel or memoir or movie? For more information on how to use it to create your story, check out Christopher Vogler’s awesome book The Writer’s Journey.
Here’s a link to the book!