Her (United States, 2013)

January 09, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Her Poster

Never accuse Spike Jonze of lacking ambition. His latest cinematic endeavor, Her, could be considered "meditative science fiction" or perhaps an iRomance. Regardless of how it's designated, Her uses a familiar idea to sci-fi fans - machine sentience - and spins it in a new and exciting direction. In addition to exploring how that might work in a near-future, real-world setting, Jonze looks at the ways in which people react to non-traditional relationships and how interpersonal interaction might change in an increasingly computer-dominated society.

Events transpire at an unspecified time in the future. The world is recognizable but subtly different. Everyone is plugged in. People wear earpieces to communicate with their personal data systems. Dictation has replaced typing and video games are physically immersive, using holographic technology for true 3D. Communication is often done anonymously and sex sometimes doesn't involve any physical contact. Viewers who live on the electronic cutting edge will see a vision of the future not radically advanced beyond the present.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a "handwritten letter writer." His job is to sit at a terminal and craft letters (a lost art) from one person to another. The writing is done on a computer but in a way that creates a reasonable facsimile of something inscribed longhand. He lives an isolated life, preferring to stay at home rather than go out. He's in the process of a prolonged divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), and rarely spends time with his best friends, Amy (Amy Adams) and Charles (Matt Letscher). One day, everything changes for Theodore when he downloads a "personal OS" - a product with an artificial intelligence far more advanced than anything otherwise available. He chooses the "female" option and is introduced to Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), who becomes Theodore's constant companion. As she gains sentience, he falls in love with her but, as with all relationships, no matter how unconventional, the "honeymoon phase" can't last forever.

Theodore is an intriguing individual, played with just the right amount of awkwardness by Joaquin Phoenix. He's not completely inept around other people but his interpersonal relationships are limited - a condition that is enabled by the social conditions under which he lives. His friends are more like accessories than necessities. He has a long history of failed romantic relationships - a fling with Amy that turned into a friendship, a failed marriage, a late night chat session that enters bizarre territory, and a blind date that takes an ugly turn. Considering how badly things have gone with Theodore and flesh-and-blood women, is it any wonder he finds bliss with an entity he can never touch?

Samantha is a fascinating character, cut from the whole cloth of "hard" sci-fi stories that postulate the possibility of a sufficiently advanced AI gaining consciousness. Jonze takes this as a given; we never doubt that Samantha is as "real" as Theodore. For a while, she has a Pinocchio syndrome in which she tries to find a way to become a real live girl and interact physically with Theodore. A failed experiment using a "stand in" leads to her becoming comfortable in her "own skin," so to speak. Her asks a lot of questions about Samantha that it can't (and probably shouldn't) answer, like what does "love" mean to an OS? Or when an OS has an orgasm, what is being experienced - pleasure, a simulation of pleasure, or something else? It's impressive that a movie can get a viewer to think about things like these when too many films are interested in deadening the intellect.

Certainly, the relationship that develops between Theodore and Samantha is unusual, but Jonze is careful not to be judgmental about it. His approach isn't to deride his main character for being so detached from the human experience that he can only find happiness with a machine. Instead, Jonze likens the Theodore/Samantha pairing to many of couplings viewed at one time or another as "nonstandard": mixed-race, May/December, homosexual, etc. In Her, some characters react negatively to Theodore's revelation that he's dating an OS. One woman calls him "weird" and is repulsed by him. Others treat it as irrelevant and don't see anything wrong with it. There's a lovely scene in which Theodore and Samantha "double date" with one of Theodore's co-workers and his girlfriend.

The movie is talky, but one wouldn't expect anything different when half of the lead couple exists only as a voice. Scarlett Johansson never appears in the flesh, which gives her only her vocal chords to work with. Although I wouldn't go so far as to argue for a Best Supporting Actress for Johansson, she successfully brings Samantha to life. It would be interesting to watch a cut of the movie with the original actress (Samantha Morton) in the role and see how it differs.

Jonze doesn't make conventional movies; he's a lot like Terry Gilliam in that way. Yet his films, which have included Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, almost always work because they take chances and don't underestimate the viewer's intelligence. Her is another such production. It's audacious but also genuine. It's emotionally true and demands much from its audience not in terms of suspension of disbelief but of empathy with the main character.

Her (United States, 2013)

Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Rooney Mara, Amy Adams, Matt Letscher, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde, Portia Doubleday
Screenplay: Spike Jonze
Cinematography: Hoyte Van Hoytema
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2014-01-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1