Her begins with a long and insistent close-up of Joaquin Phoenix. The camera plainly captures the large glasses, pale face and the bland voice of its main character. Phoenix’s character Theodore is reading a love note he composed and recording it on his computer, blankly revealing his sensitivity to the addressee of his letter— a person he will likely never meet or come in personal contact with. But this type of digital emotionalism is where society is going— writer/director Spike Jonze seems to be saying— and his new drama seeks to show where that direction will ultimately lead us.
Theodore works in an elaborate but sparsely-occupied office and lives in a home that feels as empty as the resident who dwells within its walls. He occupies his time playing video games (which look and feel like the Nintendo Wii) and engaging in sexually-explicit phone calls with lonely women looking for a good time. One call becomes a bit troubling and eventually Theodore purchases what is advertised as being the “first artificially-intelligent operating system.” Voiced by Scarlett Johansson, this new system—which quickly names itself Samantha— speaks and listens to Theodore as any friend would and knows everything about him that is accessible online (Samantha reads all of his e-mails, for instance.)
Jonze, who previously helmed Adaptation and Being John Malkovich is a masterful writer who knows how to build a concept and then examine it with the intricate know-how of a heart surgeon. He never lets an idea define a film. Instead, he only lets it begin a movie and then slowly but surely removes the layers of the concept. What starts here as a gimmicky concept—a man falls in life with his faceless operating system— becomes something more as it shows both the man and the system growing together.
“What makes me me is my ability to grow through my experiences,” Samantha states early on as she reveals how she was created. Her program was built over a long period and so the system has taken on the traits of the people who helped build it and can grow and adapt because of that. As a system, she can learn and grow and the plot finds her learning and building a life as much as it shows Theodore building his.
Throughout the story, Jonze finds unique obstacles for Theodore and Samantha to overcome in their “newfound” relationship. Samantha struggles with the idea of never having a body. Theodore struggles with his ex-wife Catherine’s (Rooney Mara) insightful comments about his own relationship weaknesses. The duo struggle with the idea that they can never be truly intimate with each other. Each struggle is a realistic one that would likely appear if relationships such as these existed. Additionally, Amy Adams appears as Theodore’s ex-girlfriend Amy, a woman who struggles with her own relationship insecurities and who longs to be as warmly comforted as Theodore is with Samantha.
Overall, Her is a wondrously creative and beautiful film that never feels like too much of a fantasy. With our reliance on technology and intuitive computer systems, this movie comes across as a parable about how lonely people can sometimes find comfort in technology when real relationships fail on us. Phoenix and Johansson are great performers together here and show that while this future relationship doesn’t seem too far off, it’s not something to hope for. In fact, the tragic realism of this situation is something to dread.
My review: A