“There’s something that feels so good about sharing your life with somebody.”
It’s rare to walk out of a movie with a plethora of feelings and thoughts tugging at you from every direction. Happiness, sadness, yearning, regret, pleasure, pain, excitement, sorrow: Spike Jonze’s Her runs the gamut of these, tiptoeing between them all effortlessly, a nimble exercise in the balance of not just a smorgasbord of human emotions but of deeply intellectual ideas, of sincere drama, of riotous humor, and, most of all, of tender sincerity.
Spike Jonze’s film is one likely to be remembered as the movie about a man who falls in love with his operating system, or OS for short. But it’s about so much more than that. The film takes a look at connections — both friendly and romantic, personal and technological — and what makes them work. It’s a high-concept character study that juxtaposes connectedness with isolation, and fulfillment with emptiness. It caters to dreamers and skeptics alike, to optimists and pessimists, romantics and cynics. There truly is something here for everybody.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a man approaching middle-age who writes “handwritten” letters — via his computer’s voice recognition software — for loved ones whose lives are too busy to afford them the opportunity to do so themselves. Between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and long-distance friends, Theodore is the thread that helps keep these relationships intact as time wears on.
But his work feels uninspired and practically phoned-in, a bad sign as these are supposed to be highly personalized works of ink and paper. What we soon discover is that, while he attempts to keep others together across space and time, and not let his clients’ relationships fray at the ends or tear at the seams, Theodore’s marriage to his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) is in tatters, deteriorating with every passing moment.
The two are prepared to divorce, once Theodore quits dragging his feet and signs the papers he must inevitably sign. But love, no matter how fleeting, is hard to let slip away, especially when we think, as Theodore does, that we’ve felt everything we will ever feel, that each feeling we experience going forward won’t really be new but will simply be a lesser version of something we’ve felt before. As I imagine he has asked himself many times, what more is there to search for in the world when you’ve already had everything you wanted? But as we all must, Theodore, too, needs to move on and make life anew.
He stumbles across a video advertisement for OS 1, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system. It is a personal assistant-style software capable of not just helping users with every day tasks, but of providing them with companionship in a world where person-to-person connections are on the downturn. Theodore has friends, namely his brief college flame Amy — played by the magnificent Amy Adams — but since his breakup, he struggles to have fruitful, meaningful interactions with the world around him, preferring instead to play motion-controlled video games or utilize a digital service akin to phone sex.
This new OS 1 software can be gendered either male or female, is customized for each user via a personal evaluation, and is able to think, feel, and form its own worldview. It is ever-evolving, not that it might soon take over the world but that it becomes more and more sentient with each passing interaction, with each deployment of its search engine, and with each new situation it encounters. The OS is artificially intelligent, but it becomes so close to human that it’s hard to tell where exactly the line rests.
Spike Jonze’s portrait of the future, as seen in Her, is among the more interesting takes on what’s (potentially) to come for our society. It is devoid of robots, flying cars, hover boards, and time travel. There is no Skynet, no cyborgs or replicants. It is not a dystopia, as we’ve become used to seeing in films of Her‘s ilk. Instead, Jonze seeks to create a future that we, the viewers, could actually see ourselves living in. It feels distant, yet strangely probable, and not entirely dissimilar to the world we’re progressing toward, what with the development of technologies like smart watches and Google Glass and Apple’s personal assistant, Siri.
We aren’t told what year it is or when exactly the film takes place, but the technological landscape in Her creates a minimalist world focused on personal necessity, betterment, and wellbeing as opposed to a drastic shift in society at large, as most science fiction films attempt to portray. In utilizing this approach, Jonze creates a future that looks and feels like something that might not be too far off.
But the writer-director does more than create a futuristic depiction of society for us to examine and ponder. His screenplay is so deep and encompassing that it allows for seemingly endless discussion on not just what the future might hold but also how we contemplate and view relationships and technology in an ever-changing social landscape — even if the future is nothing like Jonze depicts it. In my opinion, this is what makes Her a genuinely great science-fiction tale. Whether he has foretold the future or not, there are a number of interesting conversations to be had.
Through Theodore’s divorce, we are allowed to examine traditional interpersonal relationships and interactions. It is a well-known fact that sometimes people, for one reason or another, drift apart. We are all on our own separate journeys in life, and while we may choose to bring others along on our voyage, sometimes we happen to arrive at different destinations, leaving others behind or in a role different from the one they expected to serve. Each of us experience change, and through this change, our connections with others must adapt as a result.
And when Theodore brings to his friend Amy his current relationship situation with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), Theodore wonders if, after his failed marriage to Catherine, he is simply avoiding getting involved in a “real relationship.” Amy responds with a thought-provoking question: Is his relationship with Samantha not a real relationship? As humans, can we have a genuinely meaningful relationship with something that isn’t a real, live being with a beating heart and a thinking mind?
It’s an interesting inquiry to consider, but perhaps a better question, the one I think Jonze is more interested in, is, don’t we already do this? We spend our days in front of computer screens, and our nights in front of the television. Everywhere we go, we carry devices with screens that notify us when others have generated an interaction with us, whether through a text message, a phone call, an email, a Skype session, a Tweet, a SnapChat, a Facebook post, or a Word With Friends update — or whatever your turn-based game of choice may be.
With every notification we receive, we can choose to interact with the world around us without ever seeing someone or having an actual in-person interaction. We spend so much time focused on our computer screens and our smartphones that we already have a relationship with technology, whether or not we choose to see it that way. These devices have become, in some cases, our primary means to connect with the rest of society, with our friends and family and loved ones. We so often perceive others through the veil of a Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feed that all we know about someone are the things we see on their self-monitored social profiles.
Spike Jonze’s depiction of the future in Her isn’t just thematically distinct, it’s visually unique as well. With the help of cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, Jonze juxtaposes his world of brightly colored retro-futuristic clothing and clean, slick interiors with sun-drenched cityscapes and washed-out imagery. It is ornate, but also quite stark. This contrast in visual representation serves the narrative well, as the film’s minimalist take on the physical world it portrays places the emphasis on Theodore, his existence, and his relationship with the outside world.
In his artificially intelligent OS, Theodore finds a new friend and, with her help, takes out a new lease on life. Johansson’s voice perfectly befits Samantha, her vocal quality lending to the character a warm, inviting, and unique personality. Samantha’s disposition works in harmony with Theodore’s true character, his melancholy fading as a new contentment sets in. Through Samantha, Theodore begins to see the world from a different perspective, puts himself out there for others to see, and allows himself to feel emotions, dream up thoughts, and have conversations he had all but forgotten he was able to experience.
You could say Her has a lot of heart, and you’d be right, because it does. But it doesn’t just have its own heart. It grabs hold of ours, and we’re unable to control where it takes us. From the top floor of the tallest building to the dark basement well below ground level, Her will launch you to the extremes and stop at every floor in between until it restores you exactly where you belong — in the here and now, considering what it all means. It is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and in the end, you can’t help but notice that Her is absolutely nothing if not genuine, tender, and unabashedly heartfelt.
Rare is the movie that effortlessly walks the tightrope of drama and comedy, but writer-director Spike Jonze finds the perfect balance between the two, while never losing sight of the story and emotional threads he seeks to unravel. Her is undoubtedly one of the funniest and most heartrending films released in 2013, and is arguably the most timely film in recent memory. It’s both a great piece of entertainment and a thought-provoking cinematic endeavor created by a true visionary and his excellent team of collaborators; Her is the true essence of what film is all about.
Grade: ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content and brief graphic nudity
Runtime: 126 minutes