Review: Her – Love in the time of technology
A man in love with his computer’s operating system. It’s an odd premise, especially for anyone who ever purchased Windows Vista, but somehow writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) was able to turn this idea into Her, one of the best sci-fi movies of the year and a thought-provoking commentary on love and human relationships in the time of technology.
Set in Los Angeles in an undetermined year of the future, Her tells the story of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man who has recently separated from his longtime friend and wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He works as a writer for a company that creates personalized letters for people and delivers them as handwritten correspondence (even though the graphics and scribbled fonts are still printed from a computer.) This is a world where people long for human connection; they just don’t have the time to facilitate it themselves. (Sound familiar?)
Theodore’s desperation for emotional interaction makes him very successful at his job, where his letters are admired for their genuine sincerity. But the man still has a huge hole in his life that he usually fills with video games and futuristic phone sex with strangers; until one day he installs a new state-of-the-art operating system on his computer.
After answering a handful of personal questions, the OS is set up and has given itself a name, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and a personality that fits Theodore’s needs. It learns more about the man by going through his email and messages and he is impressed by how personable the disembodied entity can be.
Her has a mesmerizing soundtrack by the popular band, Arcade Fire, but in the story much of the music is credited to Samantha, who composes it electronically on the fly in order to please Theodore. She spends a great deal of time reading and in the ether of the electronic cloud, developing an understanding for the human she has come to love.
Theodore is eventually completely smitten by Samantha and the attention she pays to him, and she (it) also evolves to have feelings for him. As unlikely as it seems, as the film progresses, you actually begin to believe in this unorthodox relationship and it begins to resemble the real thing with all the trappings, good and bad, of a human-to-human affair.
At first Theodore keeps his OS relationship a secret, but as he sees others in his same situation he eventually “comes out” with his love for Samantha and is accepted without question by some and scorned by others. This metaphor for the current struggles of the LGBT community is just one of the many layers that make this film a thoughtful exploration about the meaning of love.
Although this movie may be a bit too strange for some tastes, I felt it worked on many different levels that are mashed-up into an entertaining and cerebral look at the current state of electronic versus human interaction and the potential future that technology might bear.
The future depicted in Her is also very funny. Instead of outer-space sci-fi costumes the men in this future all dress in “grandpa” clothes, with their shirts tucked-in and their wool pants pulled up to their chests. And operating systems aren’t the only programs using lifelike artificial technology; video games also have smartass characters that fully interact with the player, with humorous results.
Joaquin Phoenix is alone onscreen for almost the entire film and he is excellent in this difficult role, proving again that he is one of the best actors of his generation. Scarlett Johansson shows that she can be sexy and smart, even without being seen, and delivers what is easily the best voice performance of the year.
If H.A.L. 9000 had the voice of Samantha in Her, I think Dr. Dave Bowman would have done anything she told him. She’s easily one of the greatest computer characters of all time.
Her also stars Amy Adams as one of Theodore’s only human friends, Olivia Wilde as a sexy and slightly demented blind date, and Chris Pratt as Theodore’s co-worker at the letter company. These actors are all good in their small parts, but Phoenix talking to Johansson makes up most of the film.
There have been many movies that have examined the potentiality of artificial intelligence gaining self-awareness and emotions (see Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and, of course, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, to name a few), but of that entire genre, Her is probably the one most grounded in the reality of the human/machine experience. The ending of this film in particular is beautiful, heartbreaking and completely logical – all at the same time. Don’t let anyone tell you more than that.
Her also reminded me a lot of last year’s Ruby Sparks, in that it addresses many of the same issues regarding love, loneliness and relationships, but this film throws in the technology variable as well and its ill effects on the human condition. This movie may not be everyone’s “cup-of-java,” but it’s one of the best movies of the year and is highly recommended. Grade: 9/10
Photos © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures