by Dan Casey on January 15, 2014
The short review: Thought-provoking, dreamy sci-fi wrapped around a romance that makes us question the nature of relationships and intimacy, Her is one of the best films I’ve seen in a while.
There’s a good chance you’re reading this review on your phone. Maybe you’re on the subway, trying to kill time between point A and point B. Maybe you’re lying in bed with only the dull glow of your screen illuminating the room. Maybe you’re reading this on a computer and all this talk about phones is making you wonder just where the hell you left yours. Regardless, our lives are inexorably tied to the march of technological progress and few devices have the same hold over our lives that smartphones possess. It’s a seemingly obvious observation in hindsight, but it’s also one of the central conceits of Spike Jonze’s Her, a beautiful little sci-fi love story starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lovelorn writer who hides behind his work and Scarlett Johansson as Sam, the uncanny valley Siri with which he falls in love.
Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) is a lonely man in the final, grueling stages of his divorce. By all accounts, he is a man who has retreated from the world. He spends his days working as a writer for a company that writes hand-written love letters for other people, a job that quite literally allows him to hide behind other people’s emotions instead of confronting his own. His job is one crutch, video games and the Internet are the other. Occasionally, Theodore will hang out with friends, but one gets the distinct feeling that the most human interaction he gets comes in the form of his co-worker Paul (the delightful Chris Pratt) dropping mail at his desk, or in the meaningless and sometimes terrifying anonymous cybersex for which he cruises before bed. Similar to the trend of young Japanese men and women shielding themselves by sequestering themselves away from the world, Theodore too is essentially a hikikomori, a bear forever hibernating in his emotionally-and-hermetically-sealed cave.
Then, Theodore meets a girl named Samantha. More accurately, he purchases Samantha, the female personality of the OS1, a brilliantly designed adaptive operating system targeted to meet its users’ every need. Voiced in a career-best (or near-best) performance by Scarlett Johansson, Samantha sounds and acts frighteningly real. Her tones are dulcet, not the tinny Speak-and-Spell slang of Siri. Her suggestions are intuitive and her thirst for experience pushes the boundaries of verisimilitude, blurring the lines for both herself and Theodore. Soon, Theodore finds himself smitten with this perfect, pocket-sized girl, going so far as to prop her up in his shirt pocket, camera facing outward so she can “see” and “experience” the world just as he does, and even having sex with her (whatever that means, exactly). Watching them fall in love is equal parts touching, saccharine, and unnerving.
Everywhere Theodore looks, people are consumed by technology, having the kind of head-back, uninhibited, yogurt commercial fun that doesn’t seem to be the purview of normal humans. The commonality? They’re all busy conversing with their operating systems, eschewing human relationships for one with the A.I. on their phones. Are humans and machines capable of entering into a meaningful relationship with one another? Possibly, but only to a point. Samantha is able to master whole realms of human knowledge in a matter of moments and as her consciousness grows, so does her need to move beyond being tethered to just one person (or A.I. — one of the film’s funniest moments comes from the romantic rivalry between Theodore and an A.I. programmed to contain the personality of Zen philosopher Alan Watts), a fact which nearly drives Theodore insane with jealousy.
The film, particularly its ending, raises some potent questions about the nature of technology and the relationship between machine and user. What happens when technology outgrows its utility? By which I mean, what happens when something designed by humans to help humans, like artificial intelligences and the film’s operating systems, evolves to a point where it no longer needs humans? Will it achieve sentience and free will? Will it cause a singularity and a subsequent robopocalypse? In Spike Jonze’s twistedly twee vision of the future, the rise of the machines is a relatively benign experience, and just the kind of umbilical cord severing that people like Theodore and Amy desperately need. In the world of Her, it seems that machines might be even more capable of love than humans are.
This was a difficult review for me to write, because I have so many conflicting feelings and thoughts about this film swirling around that it has been difficult to parse. Perhaps I need a Samantha of my very own. Probably not, though. Her is many things all at once: a cautionary tale, a bittersweet romance, a startling piece of sci-fi splendor, a case study in high-waisted wool pants. Most importantly, it is a beautifully crafted, exceedingly well acted, tremendously enjoyable film and well deserving of the number one slot on Nerdist’s Top 10 Films of 2013. I unabashedly loved this film and I strongly urge you to go see it for yourself, then tweet me about it later — it just seems fitting.
Spike Jonze’s Her is in theaters everywhere.