Denizens of the depths of the North Country (i.e. the Canada-most point of New York State) rarely get great non-Blockbuster movies within a month or two of their release. I was briefly worried that I wouldn’t get to review Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, although it would have been left in the more capable hands of Rooster Illusion himself. Luckily, it showed up just in time, and the result was my friends and I feeling fulfilled but emotionally exhausted.
Her is an emotional movie, one that proposes several ideas and lets the viewer follow them as needed or wanted. That is not a criticism. Her considers many complex questions: how technology isolates us; how we isolate ourselves; how “new” types of relationships interact with society; what defines “humanity;” what constitutes a relationship; how two people can fill each other’s needs; whether an idealized relationship can survive; what happens when people grow apart from each other’s expectations; and a hell of a lot more. Yet, there is still a unified effect—relationships are beautiful, complex, and difficult—which allows Her to ask these ambitious and sometimes overdone questions in a way that doesn’t feel trite. The way that is accomplished is through empathy.
Her succeeds because of its empathy, which involves us in what could be a conventional love story. That conventionality, though, allows us to see the complexities of relationships by showing a kind that we’re not familiar with: that of a man and a highly intelligent operating system. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) goes through every stage we might expect in a romance—honeymoon, bickering, fighting, distancing, etc.—but in doing so shows the complicated nature of relationships that we sometimes forget. Her understands the most powerful nature of science fiction, which is that the use of an unfamiliar world allows us to learn more about our own.
In this case, we have a near-future Los Angeles, one where technology is more advanced (although hardly beyond what could happen within a century) and more isolating. Theodore installs a new “smart” operating system, one that is personalized and learns through its experiences. His OS is Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a funny and personable disembodied voice that quickly reveals herself as more than a simple artificial intelligence. Her’s empathy extends to both Samantha and Theodore, finding in the former humanity—because, honestly, is any human being more than the result of complex, programmed chemical/physical reactions and patterns of learned behavior?—and in the latter, problems induced by his environment and personal flaws.
A lot of people miss the fact that Theodore is meant to be problematic, probably because Jonze, Her‘s writer and director, does not judge or disrespect any of his characters. There are the angry Jezebel articles (and comments), which I refuse to link to, written by people that make judgments about white male idealization of women without bothering to see the movie. There’s a somewhat uncharacteristically underdeveloped and poor article from The Mary Sue that mistakes Theodore’s perspective as Jonze’s. But Theodore is called out for his idealization and selfishness in relationships several times, notably by his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). His job drives that point home: he writes handwritten letters for others, experiencing only the most beautiful parts of people’s familial, friendly, and romantic relationships—never the hardships. BEGIN MINOR SPOILERS Theodore idealizes situations to a large extent, and ultimately he cannot sustain a relationship because he cannot move past his view of who Samantha should be.
Asking who Samantha is yields some complex questions. She is funny, smart, and insatiably curious. She and Theodore are perfect for each other…for a time. But they grow apart, as people are wont to do; that’s not anyone’s fault, but rather something that happens sometimes. The issue isn’t that she’s an OS, but rather that the two become incompatible. Jonze, I think, succeeds in portraying this notion of relationships that most movies don’t touch. Sometimes people grow apart, and it’s hard. Theodore and Samantha are not at fault, despite some faults that they have. They’re just different. END MINOR SPOILERS
As I said before, this is just one set of questions asked by Her. I could talk about the nature of Theodore’s loneliness, which the cinematography (done masterfully by Hoyte Van Hoytema) emphasizes by surrounding him with warm reds and pinks, as well as several other people all talking to their own technology. Everything feels so welcoming, but Theodore’s isolation from the thousands of people that surround him is all the worse for that reason.
I don’t think Jonze means to indict technology or our dependence on it, but that’s one of the many strands of thought in this densely thoughtful film that viewers can choose to follow or not on their own. Her is both a movie that is perfect for its time period—one where technology is taking an increasingly complex role in our lives and relationships are growing past traditional models—and possibly long lasting because it gives the viewer so many trails to follow, each as complicated and fulfilling as the rest. Many might dislike Her, but I’d be shocked if anyone can find it pointless, dull, or uninteresting.
Before I wrap this up, I do want to say that the reason this movie succeeds, barring the deft writing and direction, is because of the finesse brought to every aspect of the production. I’ve mentioned the cinematography, which is both visually beautiful and thematically relevant—keep an eye out for full-body shots as opposed to close-ups—but without the performances, Her would have failed to accomplish its ambitious goals. Joaquin Phoenix in particular carries an emotional weight that few could; we feel his love and pain, drawn from his somewhat ambiguous relationship with his ex-wife and current relationship to a woman we can’t even see. The empathy of Jonze’s writing and direction are fully realized in Phoenix’s Theodore, who easily could have been a muddled, distant character. Of all the performances I’ve seen this year, Phoenix’s is one of the best, and it will stay with me for a long time.
Johanssson also has a difficult job in making a voice feel as human as the rest of the cast, but I never thought of her as anything but a fully-realized character. Without these performances, most of the movie would have failed completely, especially SPOILER the sex scene between the two—in which Jonze cuts to black to separate Theodore from his physical body and enjoy emotions and sensations on the same level as Samantha. END SPOILER Amy Adams and Chris Pratt also layer their characters into interesting human beings, and their roles are inexorable to the film.
There’s the production design, editing, and soundtrack by Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett that is stuck on a loop in my mind, but to focus on any of these more risks pulling apart a film that succeeds because it is more than the sum of its already fantastic parts. Whether the concept of Her interests you or not, you can find something worth your time and thought in the many layers built into it. With a year filled with thought-provoking, challenging, and ambitious films, Her stands out as one brave enough to care and ask you to care, and its resultant accomplishments warrant our attention.