Posted on Monday, October 14th, 2013 by Angie Han
Most movies involving sentient, self-aware technology begin or end with the apocalypse. But in truth, those movies bear little resemblance to our actual, day-to-day relationship with technology. There are many jokes to be made about Siri’s similarity to HAL 9000 (and Siri knows all of them), but they haven’t stopped us from inviting her into our lives. And if we feel a bit anxious about that, it’s less because we worry she’ll go all SkyNet on us, and more because we aren’t sure what this dependence on our iPhones means for us and our relationships to one another.
It’s that uneasiness that Spike Jonze explores in Her, an unconventional love story about an operating system and the man who loves her. He is Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely man who makes a living writing other people’s love letters for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and she is Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the digital personal assistant programmed to meet his every need. Their meet-cute comes when he unboxes the software and answers a few questions about his relationship with his mother so the program can spit her out.
Initially, the romance is a tough sell. The idea of a man falling for a bit of technology literally programmed to please him isn’t all that unrealistic, but it is kind of creepy. Like last year’s Ruby Sparks, Samantha is the ultimate dream girl. She organizes Theo’s files, laughs at his jokes, and asks for nothing in return, all in Johansson’s appealingly raspy voice. But Samantha is also designed to evolve, and eventually she develops a clever, curious personality, along with emotions, opinions, and needs — not all of which are easy for Theo to accept.
As Samantha becomes more fully realized, their relationship starts to look like any number of person-person relationships we see today. Sure, Samantha lacks a body, but our own bodies are pretty incidental to some of our most important relationships anyway. How many long-distance friendships rely on FaceTime in the absence of face-to-face interaction? How many Internet friendships have been struck between people who’ve never met in person, or even spoken over the phone? How often do lovers turn to nude selfies or phone sex when they can’t actually be in the same room?
And just as in any “normal” relationship, there’s the question of growth and change. Theo explains to Samantha that he and his ex (Rooney Mara) “grew up together” and then grew apart. As Samantha progresses from a pleasant computer program to a three-dimensional being (not literally, but you know what I mean) to whatever lies beyond that, it becomes harder and harder for Theo to keep up. Meanwhile, Theo’s changing, too, from a mope who asks his pre-Samantha OS to “play melancholy song” to something happier, more self-aware, and more self-assured.
The astoundingly versatile Phoenix is as good as ever as Theo, who couldn’t be more different from his previous role in The Master. His co-star from that film, Amy Adams, also does some lovely work as Theo’s friend Amy. However, it’s Johansson is the most compelling performance of all, without ever even appearing on the screen. Johansson’s performance gets more complex as Samantha does, and she’s utterly convincing every step of the way.
Among the film’s other great pleasures is the setting. As envisioned by Jonze and shot warmly by Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), future-Los Angeles is a happy place filled with Jamba Juice colors (really). Even the high-tech high-rises, depicted as cold and impersonal in so many other films, look friendly and inviting here. The city looks like a great place to fall in love, as evidenced by the charming sequences of Theo and Samantha going on dates to the beach or the street fair. It helps that Jonze maintains his offbeat sense of humor throughout, tossing in jokes about armpit sex and a “Perfect Mom” video game.
Despite the big, universal themes involved, Her goes down easy — perhaps too easy. The same lightness that makes Her so fun to watch makes it feel a bit slight. The emotions don’t land as hard as they could, and I would’ve liked to see Jonze wrestle with those themes a little bit harder. Still, that’s a minor quibble with an otherwise delightful film.
In its own way, Her seems like one of the more plausible depictions of the future we’ve seen on the big screen. Jonze smartly resists the tendency of pundits, prognosticators, and dystopian writers to wring their hands, and reminds us that while certain things will change – gadgets, in Jonze’s LA, have gotten even better and more ubiquitous, and people have grown even more reliant on them — essential human nature will not. Love will always be a sweet, messy, complicated, affair, even when it’s with operating systems instead of other people.
/Film rating: 8.0 out of 10.0