A lonely man falls in love with his artificially-intelligent operating system.
Directed by Spike Jonze
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
One person who is all-in on technology that can get him further from people is Theodore Twombley. In a state of mourning since his marriage dissolved, Twombley keeps feeling love and affection but channels those emotions into his empty job, sending heartfelt letters as an intermediary between husbands and wives or mothers and sons. This career is both the most plausible and the most pathetic vision of the future that Her holds. A long way from Hallmark banalities, Twombley might write affecting prose, but I’d be deeply offended if I received a letter from a stranger who’s been told intimate details about me. Hey mom, thanks for those heartfelt words you paid a guy to write to me. Twombley spends his days neck-deep in relationships, but he’s turning ever inwards. We see him reject invitations, sit in the dark with his video games, skip learning about the world (India and China are merging) to leer at a sexy pregnancy photos, and have bad cyber sex. His constant flashbacks to his marriage place him in a low-level depression with no end in sight.
Enter Samantha, a new intuitive OS. It’s unclear if Theodore buys a version of it out of interest or boredom, but he’s leaning forward in his chair while it loads. Samantha bursts out, searching for a response, eager to learn more about Theodore and the world and how she fits into it. She’s as bubbly and optimistic as Theodore is morose and blasé. It’s worth pointing out that Joaquin Phoenix’s scenes were filmed with Samantha Morton as the OS, and Scarlett Johansson was added in post-production. It does color the film with extraneous knowledge, but even still, I would call Her the best thing Johannson’s ever done. I don’t think she’s ever played a character like this. She’s something of a manic pixie dream AI, in which she drags a hipster out of his funk, but she is so much more than that in how she has her own differentiated ideas and goals that develop outside of time she spends with Theodore. Even though we only see her interact with Theodore, it’s easy to imagine her spanning the planet, having thousands of simultaneous conversations, absorbing complex physics theories while positing new ones. Brains are just adaptive connections, and there’s no reason to differentiate between Samantha’s zeroes and ones. She is written and portrayed as having a legitimate personality, and I never doubt it for a second.
As Theodore and Samantha fall for each other, Jonze and his actors ably communicate how natural it is for them to do so. They share existential concerns, explore the city together, and fill pregnant pauses with sexual advances. It’s a unique choice for Jonze to fade to black when they have ‘sex’ with each other, and it’s one that I think works because, let’s be honest, it’s a guy jerking off. Going to black lets Theodore keep his dignity and allows the viewer to imagine Samantha as a person with a body. Her growth as an entity into the singularity, where an AI surpasses the cumulative amount of human intelligence, puts an end date on her and Theodore’s relationship. She becomes the insufferable polyamorous type, who, if she was a human, would be awful and the worst when she talks about how incapable of monogamy she is, but because Johansson is unimpeachable and because Samantha’s an entity of unknowable reach and capability, it’s a fait accompli. Why would she and her fellow AI’s stay here? It would be like humans treating their dogs as full members of civilization. A dog can be loved, but an intelligent conversation with one isn’t going to happen.
Her’s got one of the better scripts of recent cinematic history, and it’s got a main ensemble to match. Johansson’s been previously praised, and Phoenix is her equal. Over a three year span, he arguably gave the best performance in each. His character isn’t ever doing anything so outlandish or ostentatious, but he is compulsively watchable every second he’s onscreen, and he rocks the high-waisted pants far better than Chris Pratt. He’s melancholy as the sad-sack of the beginning, lovelorn with Samantha and in his flashbacks with his wife, and heartbroken towards the end, always affecting in low-key excellence Olivia Wilde is superb in her few scenes as the failed first date, and Amy Adams is playing things small but she’s rarely been more endearing. There aren’t big histrionics anywhere in Her, which is probably why the cast got so little awards recognition. Golden statues don’t make the talent onscreen any less apparent.
As much as I appreciate some of Her’s big ideas like free will and emotional entropy, I do wish they weren’t explicitly stated. With Jonze, the big idea is to be expected. Her doesn’t get them across in such a way that Her becomes my favorite Jonze (still Where the Wild Things Are), but the man’s incapable of making anything less than a great film. In depicting a future not so unlike our own, in imagining how relationships might adapt to technology, in creating an indelible romance with an impeccable cast, Her is more of the same from one of the US’s best Gen X directors. A-