What could be just an easy satire about our tech-obsessed culture becomes so much more, thanks to Spike Jonze’s clear and unflagging vision.
Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt.
At the halfway point of Her, when lonely writer Theodore Twombly is taking a day trip to the beach with his non-corporeal girlfriend Samantha, commenting on the people they see (him through his actual eyes, her through the camera attached to his phone) and falling deeper and deeper in love, one older woman down in front of my screening had had enough. She stood up, turned to the room, shouted “THIS MOVIE IS F—ING STUPID,” and walked out. Aside from the fleeting embarrassment-by-proximity that one feels when such things happen, my main impulse was to laugh. Not because she had made herself such an easy target by not “getting” what is roundly considered one of the boldest, “hippest,” and best films of 2013, but because she was kind of right.
Her is a stupid movie. But only if you take it at face value. Only if you hear the concept of a man falling in love with his computer and think to yourself “that’s ridiculous and strange, and depending on my value system I might even be deeply offended.” If you look just one inch below the surface of this vibrantly weird film, full of discomfort and heartache but ultimately affirming the best of what makes us human, you’ll find that the allegorical parallels run very deep indeed.
In the very near future of a sun-splashed Los Angeles, people are more “plugged in” than ever before. The need for human contact has diminished so much that the passersby on the street are simply talking to their ear pieces, having the computers that manage their lives send messages, order gifts for relatives, and generally be a stand-in for life as we once experienced it. Holographic video games amount to running up hills or through caves without end, where the AI characters make you swear at them to advance further. The rhythm is as monotonous as the voice of the machine reading your emails to you. “Play a melancholy song,” Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) tells his. A few seconds later: “A different melancholy song.”
Why is Theodore so morose? He’s in the middle of a painful divorce, to a wife that he still loves dearly (Rooney Mara) despite her volatile personality, the type that caused this shrinking violet to shrink even further, until his lack of communication and general soul-death became a bridge too far for her. Which is a shame, because Theodore is actually a gifted communicator: he works for a company composing “hand-written” letters by request, a quaint throw-back when most people have less and less use for paper. He collects a client’s information, and writes beautiful, heartfelt notes to spouses, loved ones, friends — and he’s the best writer in the office. Everyone says so. He says so. But he is completely unable to translate his skills in wordsmithing from the dictated page to the real world. His wife has left him, and his friends are loyal but few. His aching loneliness — the “hole in his heart” as he describes it — can’t be filled by the chat room girls who have the same short-term motives as he does.
But one day, a new operating system — OS 1 — comes to market. It’s announced as the first “evolving artificial intelligence,” designed to create the perfect personality to fit each user, and change and adapt as it gets to know you. In short, it’s built to be your new best friend. Theodore’s names itself Samantha, and she is insatiable for information: information about Theodore, and about the world outside. And despite being just a voice (the magnetic rasp of Scarlett Johansson, no less), Theodore opens up to her, sharing his hopes and dreams, and inadvertently awakens in her emotions that are fully human. She discovers what it means to feel and want, and their relationship takes a turn for the bizarre — but thanks to the unerring hand of writer-director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation), no stranger to unconventional romance, the film manages to stay upright.
Theodore loves how Samantha simply enjoys life; she comes up with ideas for “dates” in between assimilating entire books in fractions of a second, and summarizing painful e-mails from his wife’s attorney so he doesn’t have to read them. She is vivacious, funny, and nearly as “alive” as a sentient being could be without a body. To Theodore, she is the spark of life that he himself is desperately missing. According to what he reads online, this kind of relationship — “I’m dating my OS” — is exceedingly rare, which makes him feel all the more special. Few other humans even judge him for his choice when he discusses it, possibly a combination of changing social constructs and the fact that they’re just happy to see Theodore happy again. Samantha even takes to helping him in other ways, without his knowledge, endeavoring to set up a new business venture on his behalf. (It makes me wonder if there could be a darker story running parallel to Her, of an OS that doesn’t take very well to its user and seeks to destroy his life.)
But the more human Samantha feels, the stranger and more complicated things get. Despite not having a “physical” relationship — though they do, of an incredibly awkward sort the film cleverly doesn’t visualize — It’s not long before Theodore experiences the same hurts, needs, and jealousies he thought he’d be able to avoid. Her growing pursuit of knowledge and “human” experiences leaves him still lovestruck but increasingly uncomfortable, and as the curtain is slowly pulled back on events in the rest of the world, he finds himself more willing to engage with it, both to his benefit and peril. Knowledge is quantifiable — wisdom, of an emotional or moral sort, is not.
As Theodore, Joaquin Phoenix gives a masterful performance, that of a broken man who slowly comes out of his shell in ways even he can’t believe. He’s all nervous tics and introverted discomfort, hiding behind his hipster glasses (and mustache) as a walking relic of a bygone era, while becoming fully enveloped by the isolating technology of the future. Johansson, who replaced Samantha Morton in post-production (with her blessing), is equally extraordinary, imbuing Samantha with such an attractive personality — using just her voice — it’s easy to see how Theodore would fantasize about her being real. Amy Adams, as one of Theodore’s few friends (named “Amy,” naturally), actually gives a better, more naturalistic performance in this film than in the awards-gobbling American Hustle. The cinematography, by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Chris Nolan’s upcoming Interstellar), is sumptuous, almost entirely utilizing an extremely shallow depth of field that evokes a dreamlike quality. The palette is warm and appealing, reflected in the “Jamba Juice-inspired” set design, as well as the solid colors and monochrome of the costumes. All together, it creates a look that is both wholly original, and subtly nostalgic.
Her is ultimately a deeply humanistic film, about our desire for relationships and the lengths we’ll go to preserve them, even in a world where people simply no longer know how to act around each other. As Amy says: “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.” And yet, especially at the sweetly-sad conclusion, my reading of the film is almost a spiritual one. How else can you wrap your mind around the concept of an omnipotent presence sharing a pure, deep love with you, and — perhaps — as many as millions of others, simultaneously? Weird? Yes. Occasionally too weird? Maybe. But “stupid?” Only if you have no eyes to see, or ears to hear.